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Confused about contexts

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  • Confused about contexts

    One thing that I'm having trouble wrapping my head around lately is the concept of "contexts". It seemed like such a simple thing, until I started obsessing about the best way to implement the idea

    My initial understanding was that you have a set of contexts, and you place your "next action" in the appropriate context based on where you need to be to perform the action. I started with a simple set like this:
    @Waiting For

    The first thing I noticed was that I had certain "next actions" that had to be done @Work, but were personal things (non-work related) that I only wanted to do at lunch... or when I want to take a 10-15min break from my "real" work. I saw a benefit in separating my actual work from non-work related things that I also need to do at work (Renew work gym pass, for example). So, I created @Work - Working and @Work - Personal. That got me thinking... is a context really a thing that defines what you can or can't do based on where you are, or is it also a "Where I am and what I feel like doing" sort of thing?

    At my desk, I could do anything from my @Computer, @Work - Personal, @Work - Working, or even @Calls. It seems a bit tedious though, having to 1) decide which contexts I actually feel like looking at, and 2) Having to flip through 4 different contexts to see the full set of what I can do. Maybe I just want to go to @Work and see all the calls, computer stuff, personal stuff and work stuff I need to do in one fell swoop.... but maybe I only want to see what's next for my "real" work stuff. I'm not sure, this is where I start to get confused.

    Then it occurred to me, I carry my cell-phone everywhere, so technically I can make calls from anywhere. Maybe an @Anywhere context would be a more appropriate place to put calls I need to make? On the other hand, when I sitting bored in a meeting, I'm not going to start making calls... and I don't think the answer would be to have an "@Anywhere but a meeting" context? Also, I might have certain things I can do @Home or @Work, but I don't need a computer for so it's not an @Computer thing, but those are the only two places I can do that action from. So I guess another question would be, if I have multiple contexts that I could perform the action in, should I should put a copy of that action in each context?

  • #2
    Don't worry too much, contexts aren't written in stone. Just play around a bit and find out which ones make sense for your job and your life. It's a process of trial and error.


    • #3
      Don't make it so hard...

      A context is the minimum set of resources needed to accomplish a task. Resources can be physical items (like a telephone) or locations (an office or a store), or can be intangibles (time, mental energy). So you might find that it's helpful to group all phone calls together, or you might decide that certain calls (confidential client calls, say) should only be made from work, and put them in a work context.

      Play with different arrangements and see what works for you. Over time, I've flattened my context list significantly.



      • #4
        I agree with the previous posts with this addition. Context are designed to help you sort a long list of physical Next Actions to perform down to a more manageable subset based on where you're at, what you have there and/or any other circumstances. You may often be in technically more than one context at a given time. The key is to try to set up contexts so that what is listed goes a long way to answering the question "What can I get done now?" So, I could see how you might find value in an "@Work - Personal" context. But an "@Anywhere but meeting" context might be going a bit too far unless you find yourself regularly in boring meeting where you need to find something to do and there are certain things you can only do in those circumstances. Contexts are something to play around with until you're comfortable with them, but remember the sage advice--Keep It Simple Silly.


        • #5
          You are overthinking, I can tell because I tend to do that too. My recommendation is to start simple, and then layer on the additional complexity and nuance only when you find you need to. If you can get by with fewer contexts, then do it, it's less confusing. If you find your lists are getting too long to properly review on the fly, then subcategories can be helpful, but don't agonize over the details. The solution that emerges will be one that you find makes the best sense for you, so if you do better with your work context subcategorized, then go with that. What you want to avoid is perfectionism in this, because that will paralyze you and keep you bouncing back and forth, constantly rethinking and retooling. I give myself permission a few times per year to come up and review my system and make changes, purchase new software or planning tools, etc. But then after a week or so, I am out of review mode and I just live with what I have until the next review. Otherwise I am forever revising and I never actually Get Things Done!


          • #6
            May I recommend you to listen to the GTD-Virtual Study Group. Specifically to the following episode:

            I will add, context change, the system need to be as flexible as you need and move as fast as you need to, sometimes you create context that last 2 weeks, sometimes you keep them forever...

            good luck on your search.



            • #7
              Try No Contexts

              You could start with no contexts at all and just have a "Next Actions" list. The verbs such as Call, Email, etc. could be enough to deal with the volume. Or, looking at that big list you may see your own natural contexts.

              Remember that one goal is to get things that you physically couldn't do out of the way of the ones you can.

              - Mark


              • #8
                My contexts

                In my case, I found contexts confusing also. I didn't want to have too many because it seemed hard to review them all often enough (which is funny because it would be the same number of Next Actions). I think I felt less confident in my system when I had many contexts, so I changed it.

                I have simplified my system so my contexts cover as much area as possible. I currently only have three: 1) Next Actions: Calls & Email; 2) Next Actions: Home & Office (note: I work at home); 3) Next Actions: Errands.

                @Calls & @Emails works well because it deals with all of the communication I need to do. If I have to talk with someone in person or write a regular letter, it would go in here as well. Note that organizing photos on my computer or surfing the web are not communications so I do not put those here, but in my next context instead. @Home & @Office are one because I work at home. If I need to mow the lawn or photocopy papers or reinstall Linux, or read a book, it all goes here. @Errands is for anything that takes me off my property, whether it's to go to the copy center for work or to buy gas.

                My boundaries between contexts are clear enough that I haven't ever had a problem knowing where to put a given Next Action. When I had @Office, @Computer, @Phone, @Car, @Home, etc., I would have more places to look for Next Actions than I liked.

                Usually each context ends up containing one 8x11 sheet of paper worth of Next Actions, which I can skim in less than a minute.

                Hope this helps,


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Mark Jantzen View Post
                  The verbs such as Call, Email, etc. could be enough to deal with the volume.
                  Mee too! I'm using the original context. I keep them in the Outlook tasks, then I use several "identification reference".

                  In @COMPUTER I could have

                  Mail Mark Janzten RE: GTD
                  Web Browse David Allen WebSite

                  If I delegate something to someone I use his/her initials at the beginning:
                  MJ Quotation New car

                  So, ordering them alphabetically you have a sort of grouped tasks

                  I would prefer not to have many context because, with too many, you could have overlapping or confusion where have to be the Next Actions


                  • #10
                    here's mine

                    Just thought an example of another persons contexts might be useful (it's good to compare )

                    They work for me - not perfect but good enough.

                    Hope it's useful


                    @office - anything at the office that doesn't fall into another more specific context. eg 'get more staples from storekeeper', 'print xyz report'
                    @home>>@pc -anything I can (or sometimes should) only do at my home pc.. eg banking, posting on this forum
                    @calls>> work hours - phone calls that have to be made during working hours - eg to colleagues (work related), or to an insurance company (personal but they only operate in work hours)
                    @calls>> off hours - calls to be made in off hours (eg social calls, low priority calls to organisations that operate 24.7)
                    @go see - a bit of a catch all for those people I need to go and meet face to face but who don't have their own context (because they're not regularly interfaced with by me enough)
                    @linemanager - he gets his own context as it's a regular interface.
                    @team_membera - as do the team members as it's regular interfacing
                    @team_memberb etc
                    @email - this one sucks and just writing them down here has made me realise I just don't use it (I have a blackberry so basically @email is anytime).
                    @mytown - tasks/things to do/buy in my own town
                    @nearestcity - as above but only able to be done in the nearest city
                    @localtown - as above but only in a local town
                    @otherlocaltown - as above but in a different local town.


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Mark Jantzen View Post
                      Remember that one goal is to get things that you physically couldn't do out of the way of the ones you can.
                      This is a beautifully simple summation of the main use of context lists: you don't want to have to scan down a list past all the things you can't do, you just want to see the things you can do (and want to do!).

                      I have a somewhat peculiar approach to context lists, since a large slab of my time is spent sitting at a computer with a phone within reach. And since I suffer from procrastination, I found that I got a lot more done if I divided my tasks using my resistance to things as a key. I used "Nice" and "Nasty", so that when I felt fragile I could look at a list of things that wouldn't make me curl up, and when I felt brave I could tackle the scary stuff.

                      I also wrote a post (shameless self-promotion alert) about different ways of thinking about context lists, for a similar reason: if you're mostly in a context that has all the tools available, using The David's context lists won't help much.

                      In short, think about your situation, and break down your contexts in a way that makes sense for you.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by v_the_boss_v View Post
                        It seemed like such a simple thing, until I started obsessing about the best way to implement the idea

                        ... but were personal things (non-work related) that I only wanted to do at lunch... or when I want to take a 10-15min break from my "real" work.
                        Lots of good advice above. Just 2 things to emphasize/add:

                        (1) As others note, don't obsess above getting it perfect. You can always tweak your contexts.

                        (2) How about @break or @lunch as a context?

                        - Don


                        • #13
                          There's lots of great advice in this thread. The best piece of information is to not obsess over the context lists. I've had this problem, too, trying to make everything "perfect".

                          What I learned was that if your system is flexible enough to use, then it's flexible enough for you to move things to a better context if you need. You can also create and remove contexts if you figure out ones that are better. I just think of it as improving my system when it's needed.

                          Good luck!


                          • #14
                            Generally, if I'm doing lunch-hour things, there are three contexts I can use:

                            @ errands, @ phone, or @ computer.

                            If I opt to make phone calls during lunch, I run down the @ phone context list.
                            If I opt to catch up on personal emails, etc, I run down the @ computer list.
                            If I get in my car and drive somewhere, I run down the @ errand list.

                            I would recommend against the suggestion to do an @ lunch list, because I think you will have overlap with your other contexts. Are there things that you can ONLY do at lunchtime? Then perhaps it makes sense.


                            • #15
                              Wow, this has turned into a super useful thread with great feedback! Thanks everyone for the great responses! Reading through everything, I've learned a great deal more about how people manage their contexts.

                              Over the past couple weeks, I decided to follow the advice: "keep it simple at first, expand on it when you feel you need to" and it seems to be working great! You guys were right, I was definitely over thinking things initially. Just to follow up on my original post, here's what seems to work for me at the moment:

                              @Anywhere - These are for things I can do anywhere, it usually means I have to think about something a bit more, but was too lazy to do it at that moment. Great to pull up when I'm in a meeting

                              @Agenda - I found I often have a lot to talk about with specific people, so I create a note with everything I want to discuss, attach the persons name and toss it in here. People who I always have stuff to discuss (ex. my boss) have their own subfolder in here. So do any weekly meetings I attend on a weekly basis.

                              @Waiting for - Things I can't do anything with, but I'm waiting for someone to get back to me.

                              @Errands - Things I can do when I'm on the road. Groceries, hardware store, bank, etc. This list is never too big, so it's not distracting to filter it a bit based on where I feel like driving to.

                              @Work Personal - non work related stuff I can do at work

                              @Work Working - work specific stuff I can only do at work

                              @Home - things I can do when I'm at home

                              I ended up finding that the best approach for me seems to be sometimes associating multiple contexts to a single action item, and fortunately the software I use (and carry with me in my pocket) allows me to do this. For example, an action item that requires me to research something on the internet would get both "@Work-Personal" and "@Home" contexts, since I can do this action from either context. I tend to just pull up the context I'm in and can instantly see everything I can do, and don't worry about flipping through multiple contexts at once.

                              Thanks again for the great responses!