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Managing contexts

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  • Managing contexts

    While incorporating GTD concepts into my activities I find that I do not have guidelines on managing my contexts. During my work day, my @meetings, @computer, @phone etc. all get mixed up in one big gooey @office context. Such a mix up is a fact of work life and hence the emphasis on context based task distribution in GTD. What are the ways to improve context management? Appreciate any tips. Thanks.

  • #2
    I have noticed the same thing, Siva. When I'm sitting at my desk, I have my computer, my phone, and my files within 12" of my hands at any time - it makes the context lists as such meaningless.

    You have to discover what are your "contexts" during your particular workday. For some people, (including David Allen), those three contexts are not always right next to each other. But for those of us who they are, we can either use @office (I do), or we can discover other contexts that work for us. It wouldn't work at this job, but I had a previous job where good contexts would have been "@field office", @home office, @West Team (located at field office, but would include items I needed to talk to people on that team about, they all hung out in their team room), @East Team, @Goldsmith Team, @computer (there was one in the field and the home office), etc.

    For my current job, the only contexts I use are @work, @today, @waiting for, @jon (specialized waiting for boss list). I've tried having an @calls list but I never checked it and stuff fell through the cracks. [I also have @home, @internet, @someday/maybe, @out and about, and @parents, but those are used mostly for personal stuff.]

    The benefit of being able to view NAs divided by context seems to be (a) to allow you to see at a glance everything you can do at a phone if your day only allows you access to a phone some of the time, meaning when you finally get to a phone, you really need to do these six calls because you're not going to get another chance for awhile, and (b) to minimize the time "changing gears" between contexts (i.e., allowing you to return 10 calls at once and just get all of them taken care of at once.)

    Neither (a) nor (b) benefit me since I have a phone handy always and there is no perceptible momentum loss in shifting between sending an email and making a phone call and drafting a document. For me, momentum is lost switching between different clients and different projects because I have to reboot all the data in my head, so I tend to organize my NAs so that I can group them by client or project rather than by very specific context. Instead of saying "ok, what other phone calls can I make", I ask myself, "ok, now what else can I do for Joe Smith's income tax issue?"

    Sorry this was kind of long, I hope it helps. Don't be shy about customizing GTD to make it work for you. As long as you undertand what GTD is getting at with each tool and practice, you can use that principle to your benefit in your own specific way.


    • #3
      @call or @phone

      for me, the @call or @phone context makes sense because sometimes I remember I need to call someone but it's not the right time; it's lunch time (very long lunch breaks here in france), or it's the evening or the week-end (when I need to call an office) or it's working hours (and I need to call a friend at home)..; so when the time is appropriate and I have time available during let's say working hours, it's good to have a list of all the calls I want to make at that moment.

      hope this helps


      • #4
        Managing contexts

        The plan for the day will include the 'hard landscape'. How to plan for the rest of the day? Should I do this along the 'context' lines?

        taxgeek - the dilemma you addressed is what I face everyday. It is one big @office. How do you plan for your day in this situation? How do you ensure that over a period of time (one week or one month) you are on track with respect to your @office goals?


        • #5
          A context is a batch

          I would like to chime in with the way I use Contexts. I view them as batching tools, irrespective of how the batch is defined. Let me explain...

          One type of batching is the location-based context. I live in the middle of a town, with one child in a school on the Eastside, the other on the Westside. Since I am in those 2 locations almost daily, I have @Eastiside and @Westside contexts. For example, I have various shopping lists (Office Store, Hardware, Grocery, Costco, CompUSA, etc.) which I keep as #List-Office Store, etc., and I attach the physical context where the store is. (i.e. The office store is on the Eastisde, so I attach the corresponding context. However, there is a Grocery Store on the Eastside as well as on the Westside, so I attach both physical contexts to the #List-Grocery. This way, whatever physical context I am in, I know what to do.

          Another type of context I use is activity batching by type. I like to do work in batches: i.e.: many calls at one time, hence the (tool-related) @Calls. However, I like to batch client-related activities, so I have an @Client Review context. Now, a NA like "Call Jim re: Follow up on my letter goes on both @Calls and @Client Review contexts, even @Office.

          Although there is almost no barrier to switch from one tool to the next, I like the @Calls context because it is something I can get done in various conditions or locations, like driving, waiting for kids to get out of school, etc. (If you drive a lot, an @Driving context would be appropriate, but I don't do it often and long enough to deserve a Context in itself. Rather, while driving, I can think about the existing/available contexts and decide what I could do while driving -without becoming unsafe on the road, like calls, errands, etc.) Similarly, because while I am in the office I use the computer almost all the time and I am permanently connected tothe internet, I DO NOT have an @Computer or an @Online context. To me, it is indistinguishable from @Office.

          To sum it up (in the hope that the above examples were helpful) I think that the most useful definition of Context is: "Something that I find myself doing often", which offers the opportunity to batch activities. What I found helpful is to keep the number of contexts relatively small (I have 14), but to attach AS MANY contexts as possible to each NA.

          My PocketPC iPAQ allows me to sychronize multiple contexts to each task, so they are available to me in the office, or outside.



          • #6
            I go through this regularly too My biggest problem is that everything meshes together - Home, work, calls, computer, etc. The only concrete contexts I have are Errands and Waiting For. I *love* those because they are so definitive, there's no real thinking involved.

            Everything else though, is subjective and open to debate. Currently I'm trying Act Today, Act This Week, Act Soon, Act Maybe, Act Eventually as my primary contexts, and those seem to work ok.

            I've also thought about creating time blocks as my contexts instead. I don't have much that needs to go into the hard landscape of the calendar, but I do have groups of things that I do in various time blocks. 5am-7am for instance, is time set aside for working on my biggest goal. 8a-Noon is time set aside for client projects. Etc.

            I don't always force myself to stick to my plans though, so those may be just as vague as anything else - and thus just as easy to procrastinate on.



            • #7
              Managing contexts

              I realized that this topic has been discussed previously in the following thread. You may want to look at it for more inputs.




              • #8
                I'm currently working at home in a tiny alcove office (was going to move out but bought a dog and she's not ready for me to leave now ... sigh!) which is in the middle of the high traffic area of the house - computer always online and accessible many times during the day for information accessing work and non work related - phone next to the laptop - I'm also finding trouble in having meaningful contexts - @calls doesn't seem to work too well because I IGNORE it because I hate making calls - it's silly but I really do get nervous - a clear procrastinator - and the more I see that list there the more I find I'm ignoring it.. go figure....
                Anyhow my 'work' tends to become a huge office list - and I think that's why I try to break the contexts/categories down - just to reduce the size of that awful list - it would take me half my time to scroll up and down it - I realise if you are careful and consistent about your wording you can group like tasks together eg 'email john re new proposal' 'email gail re product launch invitation' etc etc but if anyone has any other ideas about this amorphous @office list i'd be happy to hear as well....
                the idea of breaking it down to clients is perhaps a good idea but i also have to spend a lot of time generating new business by cold calling, emailing, networking, devising promotions etc in order to survive (so it's a pity i hate those phone calls right? )
                funny how this context issue comes up time and time again ... i want it to be so 'perfect' and then i'll get on with everything


                • #9

                  To reply to Siva about how to break down the @office tasks, the short answer is that I just don't. My @work todo list is only about 2 screens long on my palm desktop softwware.

                  The longer answer is that since my work is so divided by client, I sort the tasks by client. Each NA is formatted as CLIENT NAME: project - next action, for example: JONES: estate plan: talk to Jon. or JONES: family partnership: draft cover letter. This way I keep track of where each "project" is and what I"m doing for each client.

                  I use the system shared recently by the brilliant DM in another thread of assigning each client a discrete "due date" as an identifier, so the todos sort by client. (Vanilla palm won't sort todos alphabetically (go figure), so this is basically forcing it to.) My @work list then looks like:

                  SMITH: estate plan - talk to jon
                  SMITH: tax question - draft inital docs
                  SMITH: hire appraiser - call ABC company.
                  JONES: estate plan - proofread docs
                  JONES: family partnership - write cover letter
                  BROWN: research - talk to Laura re xyz.

                  I pick what I'm going to work on by client - If Smith is the most important client (judged by various criteria), I do everything for Smith first. It's more efficient for me and the client that way because I have to bill my time by the hour, and switching between clients during the day costs them money as I "reboot" my brain.

                  Siva, what is your work like? Maybe there is somebody on here with similar work that can share ideas for contexts that might work for you.

                  Another thing I do, Siva, that might help you if your @work list is just too long to be able to look at the whole thing and decide what to do is to have another context called @today. Each day I try to pull out the could critical NAs that I need to get done and put them on there, and then I work off of that list during the day. If I finish those things, then I go back over to @work and choose a few more important ones. Otherwise, I tend to get distracted by the "fun" or "easy" NAs on the @work list and not do the important ones, and it allows me to make the judgement of what is most important first thing in the morning when I am nice and alert and not lazy or grumpy or whatever.

                  HTH, Taxgeek


                  • #10
                    Managing contexts

                    Thanks taxgeek.

                    My @work or @office dilemma is not much different from those expressed in this thread by others. I work in a laboratory environment but with some good amount of customer interaction and involvement with management/planning/projects. The problem I faced with contexts like @calls, @computer etc. is that when faced with a free time (of say 1hr), I did not know which context to focus on. Which is when I realized that I need to have a flow to manage the contexts to take up on.

                    I then took a good look at the type of tasks I have and arrived at the following contexts : @plan/think - task that need alone time and do my planning/thinking/brainstorming/writing etc, @lab - tasks that need me to be at any lab equipment, and then @contact - tasks that need me to be in touch with others through email, meetings, calls etc. I do what you described - first thing in the morning I go through my lists and short list a set of actions for that day (but I won't get stressed out if I don't get them done - which is good).

                    I have realized now that the context based setup allows one to do a set of tasks in a batch. I came across the same concept in a book by Don Aslett who talks about 'piggybacking' to execute tasks from multiple projects. I will now have to decide what type of tasks I am willing to do in a batch mode. I am sure this will vary from individual to individual and is related to their temperament, environment and working style.

                    Going back to my original question, I was also curious if anyone decided to 'invoke' the contexts in a orderly fashion. For example, does anyone focus on @example1, @example2 in the morning, and @example3 in the afternoon? If you have 1 hour available, given a choice, do you pick one context over the other? I think one will have to come to an agreement with oneself on what type of tasks they are willing to do in a batch mode - and then create the contexts accordingly. If that willingness is not there, then a specific context structure is purely ornamental.


                    • #11
                      The batching of tasks, (when I learned it was called "like work") breaking my day up into finite periods of time to process accounts on the computer, handwriting notes and thank you's, calls, process in basket, etc. improves my efficiency because I am engaged in relatively repetitive tasks for a period of time and it is much more efficient than constantly switching gears.


                      • #12
                        I've been using the GTD system for over a year now, and I also haven't found the "standard" implementation of contexts too helpful because I spend 95%+ of my time at my desk, where I have access to everything I need for the bulk of my work. I make very few calls (most of my communication is via email), so contexts for these kinds of things just don't matter much to me. Pretty much everything I need to do my work is within arm's reach. I do have a separate context for Errands, but that's about it.

                        However... since contexts haven't been important to me, instead of contexts I use a method of sorting next actions that is meaningful to me. I sort my actions by the level of concentration required to do them. Some work requires intense concentration, so it's very tough to make progress on these actions if I get interrupted a lot. There are certain times of the week where I know I'll get interrupted a lot and other times where I'll be able to work undisturbed for hours at a stretch. Another factor is how mentally alert I am. If I'm feeling tired/lazy, I know that long-term planning work is a poor choice, but I can easily handle doing minor updates to our web site even when I'm not at my best.

                        So I sort my Next Actions into three categories (not counting Errands):
                        - High-Concentration Office Work (uninterruptible)
                        - Medium-Concentration Office Work (interruptible)
                        - Low-Concentration Office Work (OK even when tired)

                        Then when it's time for me to get down to work, I ask myself which category is most appropriate for me to work on, and I begin selecting tasks from that category. In most cases, I start with medium-concentration work in the early morning, since I'm mentally fresh but likely to get interrupted a lot during this time. Then in the late morning and early afternoon, I switch to high-concentration work -- I'm still fairly alert, and the interruptions taper off a lot. Then in the late afernoon, it's a toss up -- sometimes I get a second wind or just get really into a high-concentration project and don't want to stop; other times I feel more drained and need to switch to low-concentration work.

                        I've found it extremely useful to sort my next actions this way. It keeps me from procrastinating, since I can still do productive work even when I'm not at my best or I'm besieged by interruptions. And when I have those dedicated time blocks available, I use them to do the really mental work that can't be done effectively at other times.

                        So in a sense, I still sort my actions by context, but for me these are mental contexts instead of physical ones. It's a context for my mind as opposed to my body.


                        • #13
                          Unfortunately I sometimes play with my contexts more than I get things done, so I buckled down yesterday and did a big overhaul, updated and reviewed my system - and resolved to leave the contexts alone for awhile

                          I revised them slightly in the process, and now have: Act Today, Act Soon, Eventually, and Maybe as the primary ones. Others include the basics like WF, Bills, Review, Plans and Errands. I've also broken my project list into two lists - business: Clients&Opps + Personal: LifeOutcomes (thank you to someone here on the board for that one, it really struck a chord with me).

                          Steve: Your context idea sounds like it has great potential!

                          - Kathy


                          • #14
                            Managing contexts

                            After starting this thread, I have been playing with several types of contexts to see which one works better for me. I started with the assumption that the basic need for a context is to do tasks in a piggyback mode even if the tasks come from different projects. At this point I feel that geography/location based context is more appropriate for my work (to achieve piggyback mode). I also liked Steve's categorization, and I think I will represent it in the priority field (on palm I don't use the priority field as per GTD philosophy, but I can use it now to further categorize my @context tasks!

                            Given a free time, I will still have the problem of picking up my context (of choice)! I learned from the book on LifeBalance by Richard and Linda Eyre - that we need to undertake tasks from all the three areas of life (work, family and self) to achieve balance in the day (and life). They recommend that each day, we pick one important task in each of these areas.

                            To streamline the process, I decided to use my hard landscape (calendar). Here is how I use it now. I will anyway have a hard landscape...which consists of a few appointments/meeting that have to be done on a particular day and time. During the morning plan time, I look at my next actions, and place 3-4 of them (preferably the must do self/family/work tasks) as appointments with myself on the calendar. These then act as 'hooks' for other NAs belonging to the same context. These are now part of my calendar and I will have to attend to them. After executing the appointment task I look at how I can cluster other NActions around these hooks. At the end of the day I can be sure that I can get some of these NAs done, even if these actions are boring and tedious while completing the critical tasks that result in a balance.


                            • #15
                              Siva -

                              Sounds Very Good

                              This is very similar to what Anthony Robbins espouses in his O.P.A./R.P.M. methodology.

                              In brief -

                              1) DUMP your brain of all the "flying thoughts" or "oops, yep, gotta do that, should do that, etc..."

                              2) Make a list capturing (or in GTD = Collecting) all of those "baby steps" or "to-do's"

                              3) Identify the OUTCOMES (yes, this part resonates with GTD quite nicely) that you want for that Day/Week/Month (depending on what type of planning you are doing)

                              i.e. - Physical Fitness: "Become a stud-muffin"

                              4) Identify the "Must Outcomes" that you want for that period of time - if nothing else were to happen, you can go to sleep knowing you achieved these.

                              5) Go back to your original list of "to-do's" and put a "*" next to those tasks that you know are key to moving you toward that outcome (maybe only one or two out of the five that you "dumped" from your brain. The others may or may not have to happen, you may be able to "leverage"/delegate some of them ("WaitingFor's") - depending on what happens after doing the two "musts."). I believe there is also some handwritten "shorthand" that you use to tie it to the outcome.

                              Robbins' goal (and whoever else may have helped him design this system) is to keep you focused on the "Higher Elevation" Outcomes every day/week/etc... not get bogged down in, or overwhelmed by the "minutia" that may or may not have to happen to get that outcome.

                              To paraphrase - 5 outcomes for the day is easier and more natural to remember than 30 "to do's"

                              At the risk of being presumptuous - IMHO, I believe David Allen's goal (or outcome, if you will...) is to keep our attention on the Higher Levels of Elevated Focus as much as possible. The "Next Actions" lists, and the Workflow Processing system is not where our attention should END (and they're not the "finish line" of the race); and not what we should be worrying about "making perfect." They are the "grasshcatchers" or the "bulletproof system" to make sure nothing slips through the cracks, so our attention is not SLIPPING back to the lowest level of thinking, the mental static of "oh yeah, gotta get batteries." The Lists & Workflow Mgmt are the "starting line" of the race, if anything...

                              * That my actually be why not TOO much attention or "worry" is placed on "The Lists" - re: due dates, priorities, etc... GTD may not want to use too much energy at the lower levels - IMHO.

                              .and of course, you can see parallels between this and other "Time/Life Management Systems" as well....

                              But I DO think using your Calendar as a place for "Higher Levels of Focus" resonates with the whole GTD philosophy quite nicely...

                              I hope there was some added value in all of this for you
                              (..and all of this typing on only one cup of coffee - wow)