Tips for contexts lists in a highly digital company

Ben S

Hi everyone,

I'm running into an issue organizing my system and I'm curious if anyone else has faced this type of problem and has some advice. I work at a major tech company in silicon valley, and all of our infrastructure is 100% digital (for context, I've never been handed a piece of paper, and have never seen anyone use the printers). I'm a software engineer, so all of my work is on the computer anyway, and a lot of my hobbies are computer based as well. Because of this I've had a really hard time coming up with contexts for organizing my next actions lists. So far what I've come up with is

  • Online-corp
    • tasks that must be completed when on the company's private corporate network (note, I can connect to it via a VPN from my work laptop, so this isnt equivalent to "at office")
  • Online
    • anything that doesnt require the corp network; typically I end up putting things on here that can be done on my phone, since my computer can access the corp network
  • home
  • errands
  • agendas
The problem is that these lists become absolutely huge, and I feel very intimidated when I look at them. Also, I ended up really focusing hard on clearing out Online-corp, and Online kept getting bigger. Really when I'm at my computer I'm in both of these contexts so I really should have been considering Online as well, but Online-corp took most of my attention.

I've also tried partitioning these lists by the type of work involved, so for example I added research and emails as sub-contexts of Online, but then it became hard to decide what context I'm in; for example, I personally don't particularly like researching things, so that list kept getting bigger and the rest stayed small.

Has anyone else had this kind of problem? What types of solutions did you come up with?

Should I just combine everything into very large lists, and just deal with it?



Contexts really are about batching work. What work can you more easily do together? Because you're in the right app and in the right mindset. That's what you want to put in the same context.

If you don't really have work that falls into neat categories and it's all truly is just a big old chaotic jumble, then that can be fine too. There are ways to deal with a huge list. When I had a huge unsorted @home context, I created ad-hoc "batches" by putting a dot in front of the stuff in my list that I wanted to do first (inspired by Mark Forster's "Final Version" but… don't follow his advice to not split projects & actions. That was a huge misstep on my part because it led me to start a lot of things at the expense of finishing things). Take a look at what's oldest on your list, "star" it or "dot" it or flag it or whatever the equiv is in your setup, and then scan your list down for everything you want to do before it and dot that as well. Then do all the dotted stuff in reverse order.

But if you can find contexts that work for you to help you "batch" things, I think that's going to be better.


A subset of possible contexts for programming:

- Programming. Full-tilt creation of new or newish code. I feel that this is different from:

- Code Tweaking. Finding bugs, fixing bugs, refactoring, changing that one error message, and so on. If I make myself think of this in the classic context sense of needed resources, Programming wants some undisturbed time. That's less of an issue for Code Tweaking. Code Tweaking involves touching code, as distinguished from:

- Housekeeping. Cleaning up the Jira backlog, or doing the requests to give the new guy the needed privileges on sixteen different systems and services, or sending emails trying to clarify what that incoherent bug report meant, or doing the documentation for a release, which is not, IMO, the same as:

- Documentation


- Testing

OF user

If you are unsure about contexts I would recommend the following method. It is a bit simple which is why I think it works well. Put everything into two contexts: Home and Work (or pick two other broad contexts that will hold everything). Anytime a context exceeds 20-25 next actions (this is what works for me - you might want to limit your context to 10-15 items or what fits on a page before scrolling, or what fits on a piece of paper), look at what is in the busy context and start another context that will seem to allow you to move the most next actions out of the "full" context to a new one. Continue to rinse and repeat. Divide contexts that get too full and combine ones that are nearly empty all the time.

Eventually, this method will lead you to developing contexts that work for you. I have used it several times and friends have tried it and find that it works well.

Geert De Vooght

I find that one side effect of consistently doing the GTD-workflow is that you indeed end up with lists that are far bigger than what you were used to, just because you capture and clarify so much 'stuff' that otherwise would remain in your head or would be forgotten.

These big lists are indeed (certainly also for me) intimidating, mostly because they make me realise (more clearly than before) that there are lots and lots of things that I haven't done (yet). On the other hand: it's only when you have catalogued everything that's on your mind, that you can make an informed decision about what's the best action to do right now.

Some other thoughts or tips:

- David Allen says to create as much contexts as you need, but as few as you can get by with (or something like that). I don't think it's a good idea to create artificial sublists. They create extra friction in your system because they require you to do more work/think harder when you're clarifying, and look at more lists when you're engaging in work.

- Big lists can be made significantly smaller by using the criteria of time and energy (using a GTD app that has these filters makes this really easy - I do this all the time in Nirvana). When you have one hour before a meeting, and your brain is not in optimal condition, you don't have to look at all the tasks that e.g. require at least two hours and high energy.

- Then there's also the criterion of priority: what action will add the most value to my work and to what I want/have to achieve. To have a clear picture of what next action will add the most value, you need to think regularly about the 'six horizons of focus' (or at least to the level of 'areas of responsibility' or 'goals').

- I've come to see the next actions on these lists as placeholders for things that I could do and don't want to forget about, not things that I absolutely must do (the ones I absolutely must do go on my calendar). This thought makes these big lists less intimidating for me.

- And finally: in the Weekly Review, I sometimes decide to just not do some actions and move them to trash, because my priorities have changed. Other actions/projects, I move to and from my Someday/Maybe list. When you know for certain that you won't do an action in the coming week(s), it's better to move it to Someday/Maybe (and vice versa, ofcourse).

Hope this helps.
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David Allen says to create as much contexts as you need, but as few as you can get by with
That goes for contexts, inboxes, and just about anything else in life. :)

Just adding that the whole point of a "next actions" list is that they need to be relatively easily scannable. The idea is that you can *quickly* look at a list and see what needs to be done, then pick something appropriate to your current situation as far as time, energy, etc.

Anything that makes that scanning process easier for you should be done. Anything that makes it harder should be eliminated. :)


I put the new NAs on top of the list, that way the newest items and other fast-moving "hot stuff" is always at the top of the list. The more "background" things sink to the bottom so to speak.

I also scan my list starting at the top. I just start scanning and do the first item that triggers me into action. Thus the new, fresh and fast items get read first and have a higher chance to get done quicker.

When times are slower, I have more leisure to scan the whole list and pick something from the more exotic life forms from the lower regions.


I put the new NAs on top of the list, that way the newest items and other fast-moving "hot stuff" is always at the top of the list. The more "background" things sink to the bottom so to speak.
Do you find yourself purging stuff from the bottom of the list frequently during your weekly review?


No, @RobertWall, this happens more at the top of the list, at least that's my subjective impression. The items at the bottom are more matured, they passed several weekly reviews already and I find that tends to strenghthen the commitment.

Here are the four "most bottom" items from my @computer context:
- listen to a specific podcast episode for a hobbyistic research paper (I am a history buff)
- sort out notes for that same paper
- order pens
- draft blog post for a small hobbyistic blog I occasionally write

All of them are purely active, not SdMb candidates. But they can wait. I still have some pens.