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Context management

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  • Context management

    The GTD method includes categorising next actions by context. But to what extent does anyone out there actively manage his or her contexts?

    For example, if I have next actions for my home computer, I should actively plan a session at my home computer, or they will never get done.

    If I have a list of next actions for “on the road”, and I have no road trips planned in the near future, I may have to deliberately make a trip or two to get them done.

    I know that a lot of our contexts come by as a matter of course, but I think the above examples address the fear that some people have that GTD is a reactive system, and that unless the contexts actually show up, we will never get around to doing the things on our lists.

    (I think this may tie in with Longstreet’s post under “Too many next actions”).

    Any thoughts?

  • #2
    A description of my heresy and ideas

    Hi Busydave,

    Well, I will be labeled as a GTD heretic, but I do not use the standard context-based categories for my work. I tried for several months using @computer, @office, @calls, etc. but it just did not work for me. I use my major roles as my context -- @Scientist, @Teacher, @Mentor, etc. This Covey approach works best for me in keeping track of my efforts in all of the hats that I wear. I realize that this is part of the weekly review. However, there was too much of a disconnect for me in my next actions and my roles. It just did not work for me.



    • #3
      Dave -

      After working with the GTD methods for awhile, here is my perspective:

      I remember one section of the book where David addresses "collection buckets" and his advice is - Have no more than you need, and as FEW as you can get away with.

      I've applied this to the "Context" based lists; and have wound up combining quite a few. Like everyone, when I started, I set everything up exactly in line with their recommended categories. Here is the list that works best for me today:

      @ Calls (Phone)
      @ Errands
      @ Home
      @ Office
      @ People/Agendas
      @ Phone
      @ Routing
      @ Waiting For...
      OUTCOMES: Life
      Projects (Work)

      I've eliminated the "Computer" categories, and simply list any Next Actions by context of where the computer is (@ Home, @ Work, etc...) and where I am most likely to get a particular piece of computer work done. For example - "Monthly Household Budget" would be @ Home; and Draft Schedule for Project XYZ would be @ Office.

      I've eliminated the "@ Anywhere" category for the same reason. Assuming that everything on my "To-Do" list is "processed", if something can be done "anywhere" it goes in "unfiled" - and I wring a 16th Category out of the Palm!

      Also - within each of the "Master Contexts" listed above; I will use "sub-contexts in the 1st line description of the Task. For instance - under "@ Errands" I have Next Actions including "@ Staples," "@ Home Depot," and for mailing bills I use "@ Post - Car Payment (set up through Outlook as a repeating task one week prior to the due date).

      Also, I found that describing "bigger picture" multi-step things as "Outcomes" got me more emotionally engaged with them than if they were lumped in with "Project XXX-25-XYZ."

      Hope this helps!



      • #4
        Interesting that this came up today. Just as I was falling asleep last night, I realized I needed to go back to having a bills list.

        Several weeks ago, based on another thread in this forum, I had decided I was using my context lists wrong. I had a bills to pay list in the todo app of my Palm, and instead figured I needed to put these into the hard landscape because they had actual due dates.

        What I found though, was that I didn't trust that part of my system anymore. By not having a list telling me at a glance the bill, the date, and the amount due... I wasn't sure what was or wasn't paid. And going back through the calendar to find them didn't inspire confidence, because I felt like something was missing. The calendar also didn't give me an indication if something was already paid or not.

        FWIW, context lists have always been my biggest GTD struggle. I find myself bouncing back and forth between location contexts and importance contexts. I think I've finally decided that importance makes the most sense to me. I don't have location changes. I work and live in the same place and don't travel much.

        I also bounce back and forth between having or not having a "Today" category.

        In any case, current lists are:
        Commitments ("Projects" just didn't do it for me)
        Bills to Pay
        Opportunities (A new one I'm trying out)
        Waiting For

        Thanks for starting this discussion


        • #5
          Thank you SO much for sharing...

          Thanks for re-minding me of how different people will implement this workflow management system.

          In over 6 years of using, talking about and teaching this material, I have NEVER seen two people ultimately set up the same organization/action management system. In fact, during a seminar I attended with David some time ago, a participant asked, "David, does everyone on your staff do this?" [Meaning, do they organize his way?]

          I'll always remember his response…

          "I don't know... I surround myself with people who keep their agreements. They can decide for themselves how to do that."

          The answer blew me away. I realized that teaching and sharing this material means thinking, creating, developing...constantly fine tuning an answer to this question:

          "What do you need to see...when do you need to see you can be present right now?"

          Thanks for reminding me about the subtlety of this work.


          • #6
            I had an educational moment myself this morning. It only had to do with a small matter, but it generated a very useful light-bulb moment.

            Part 1 of a two-part murder mystery was screened on Monday last. (It starred Felicity Kendall, which will ring bells for guys over 40 on this side of the pond). Part 2 is to be show tonight. During breakfast this morning, I remembered that I need to find where I taped part 1, and set the video when I get home, (did not have enough time right then).

            The task itself will not take long, but how can I be sure that I will remember it after a day in the office, especially in light of the fact that we will have visitors this evening, which will be sure to distract me?

            How could I use my paper based GTD system to achieve this aim, or more precisely, how could I be sure that I will remember to consult the organiser when I get home tired, and distracted by the visitors who will already be there when I arrive? (I will shamefully confess that this morning my organiser was in my car – visitors last night also).

            I presume the answer is to evolve the habit of opening the organiser at my @home list and also consult my diaried tasks AS SOON AS I stop the car outside the house every evening. (But maybe I would have had it open at @ “on the road” already?). I can see from your posts that it’s a case of identifying the fewest number of key contexts that will ensure maximum coverage, but do you ever worry about gaps – i.e. that in the transition between contexts a task may be missed?

            How do you get your organiser to be a trusted part of your life?



            • #7
              Yours is a question which comes up from time to time. You have next actions set up in contexts, but you feel you need some type og driving force to send you to a particular context list.

              You might want to pick a time of day to make phone calls, and write "Calls" on your calendar each day (or make it a repeating appointment if you are digital). Pick a day of the week to run errands after work and enter "Errands" on the calendar. That would send you to the list. You are then free to tackle the ones you want to and leave the others for the next session.

              I make it a habit to at least LOOK at each context list daily to see if there is anything that has become critical. If so, I take off the category name. That makes it show up in the "Unfiled" category in my Palm and in a "None" category in Outlook. The "none" category automatically appears at the top of the list in Outlook. Those are the thigns I must do today. So, while I am running the errand which MUST be done that day, I will also go to the errands list and knock off as many of the others as is practical at the same time.



              • #8
                It sounds like taping that show (and first finding the tape where you taped Part 1) is something that has to be done today, otherwise the show airs and you have missed taping it. Put it on the calendar. If you are using a paper planner, keep it open and visible. You could also use some type of alarm system. When the alarm goes off, it means you need to look at the planner to see what it's reminding you to do.



                • #9
                  Thanks Frank.

                  If I can evolve the habit of reviewing my lists and appointments over my early morning pre-office coffee, (which I never miss), then I should be able minimise the possibility of missing Next Actions. For example, I will be able to predict when I am likely to be in particular contexts during that day, and freshen the idea of turning to the relevant list when I am there.

                  I like the idea of making a diary appointment to visit, say, the @phone list. This will give an extra, gentle push towards that context at a suitable time of the day.



                  • #10
                    Frank -

                    Re: Using "Unfiled"

                    What an EXCELLENT idea!

                    You and I seem to frequent many of the same "boards" on the web, and I thank you for posting this powerful concept.

                    I don't believe that I've ever seen anyone else suggest it, but its grace comes from the fact that it is SO "subtly obvious," while being a natural part of both software packages (Outlook & Palm). As a result, it resonates VERY well, with the Eastern Philosophy that David himself seems to resonate with.

                    I almost feel as if I should be listening for a grasshopper at my feet...(lol)



                    • #11
                      Part 2:

                      I need to CLARIFY why I said it resonates so strongly with the Palm software...

                      If you use more recent versions of the software - the DateBook has an "Agenda" view: DateBook on top; ToDo List on the bottom.

                      I normally start my ToDo list on "unfiled," because from there you can move from category to category by repeatedly hitting the ToDo button (it will not move TO "unfiled" using this method, just "all")

                      If you use the Agenda view, in combination with Frank's suggestion; you automatically create your plan (or "hard landscape") for the day.

                      Again compliments on a "simple but powerful" technique.



                      • #12

                        I am very interested by your combined methodology whereby you to categorise next actions by roles.

                        As an accountant, I seriously thought about categorising by client, @client A, @client B, etc. I’m still not entirely sure if it will work or not.

                        I sense that you were motivated by the fact that each of your roles is manifested as a mode of thought and action, and that carrying out a selection of @computer tasks would involve flitting ineffectually from role to role without making any meaningful progress in any of them.

                        I think one of the realities of “brain work” is that you upload the latest state of play of a project into your brain, and then start to work on it. The physical actions may actually only consist of some writing on a page. The effort to upload the salient points of a project in order to allow you to make a meaningful phone call are such that it can seem inefficient to simply “unload” the project again in order to upload the next one and make the next phone call. (This argues against the idea of making all of your phone calls in the one session.)

                        For those of us who are lucky enough not to be caroming from one meeting to the next, it may be possible to fix it that we can spend a reasonable amount of time in one role or on one client’s case.

                        My question is, apart from your particular way of categorising action lists, do you more or less follow general GTD principles, or have you reengineered any other aspects?




                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Busydave
                          The task [finding the video tape] itself will not take long, but how can I be sure that I will remember it after a day in the office, especially in light of the fact that we will have visitors this evening, which will be sure to distract me?

                          How could I use my paper based GTD system to achieve this aim, or more precisely, how could I be sure that I will remember to consult the organiser when I get home tired, and distracted by the visitors who will already be there when I arrive?
                          Excellent question. I found when I used my day-timer, that it stayed in my briefcase when i got home, only to emerge if i needed to access a list or my calendar. Never really found a way to make checking my day-timer when i got home an organic part of my routine.

                          (I use a Palm now and sync it nightly. That's when I review my lists on the Palm desktop and update as needed. So now reviewing the lists at home is more organic.)

                          For your specific problem of finding the right videotape, I would forget about using the planner book. I would have just found any old videotape and placed it where I knew I would put my breifcase when I got home that evening. (I have a chair by the office door that holds my briefcase.) When I got home, I would see the videotape in the chair, that would fire off the synapses, make the connections, and then I would rummage at that moment to find the right tape and set the timer.

                          Of course, that depends on you having a routine and a place for everytbing. It also recognizes that the day-timer or the Palm may not be the best place to post reminders of things. Whenever I've tried to impose a system on my mind (ie, write it all down in the day-timer, check it every night, etc) I instinctively rebel against it. The trick is to understand what would capture your brain's attention and work with it instead of agasint it.

                          (I also will put my wallet or keys in a differnt pocket or my watch or wedding ring on my other hand to remind me to do something. When I see they're not in their usual place, it fires off the synapses to remind me of what I needed to do. Good for only short-term stuff though!)

                          It is wise to consider your state of mind at the end of the day and plan for that at the start of your day, when you're fresher.

                          BTW, the flylady web site that's been mentioned here, I think, advocates an 'evening routine' to begin after you finish supper. Maybe 'check day-timer for tasks' would be a part of that routine.

                          Anyway -- just some stray thoughts and ideas. HTH -- mike


                          • #14
                            Context lists and roles

                            Hi Busydave,

                            Well, I must confess that I am going to try the context next actions lists approach again versus having things listed by role. Perhpas I did not give it a fair try. I had done things by role for so long (i.e. Covey approach in roles & goals) that it is a difficult transition. I read GTD from cover to cover again last night, so I am fired up to try next action lists by context again! I'll keep everyone posted as to my progress...

                            Other than preparing a weekly plan consisting of goals for the week as a result of my weekly review, I follow GTD fairly closely, I think.



                            • #15
                              Longstreet -

                              I've "tweaked" and re-tailored my Palm for the past couple of years.

                              If you resonate with the "Roles" aspect strongly, then perhaps that's not the problem - but the struggle was WHERE you put it in the Palm.

                              Why not leave the ToDo List/Next Action List for the minute "runway" level of life - where you organize by @Context.

                              You could still use the Roles as Categories - just in the Memo Pad instead. That could be the place for your "higher altitude perspective", which I think Roles definitely fits into.

                              Or, you could consider them "Categories of Improvement" (oh, wait, that's a different guru's model of


                              PS: Yes, I've done this myself, otherwise I wouldn't recommend it.