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Dr. Contextlove or: "How I learned to stop worrying and love iCal"

A favorite topic of GTD'ers is the contexts that we each choose to identify the times, tools, or locations by which a given task can or must be undertaken. This is a highly personalized decision, and I've learned a lot from seeing how other people are doing it.

Since I see it's been a while since I've talked about how I'm using contexts, here's an update that reflects how I'm now using Kinkless GTD and iCal to keep things wrangled.

Contexts, enumerated

It's worth mentioning that a lot of my approach has been shaped by my move from Entourage to kGTD + iCal. While the actual contexts haven't changed too much, the way I organize and think about them has evolved, as we'll see a bit later.

The context themselves, with a brief explanation, where it's useful or non-obvious:

Actionable contexts

  • brainstorm
  • calls
  • chores
  • decide
  • design & code - stuff that usually involves opening a text editor or Photoshop. I try to keep these kind of activities "ganged" together. (See also)
  • desk - Usu. stuff like backups, filing, or paperwork, where I need to actually be at my desk or office in general
  • email - Can be writing, reading, processing, or any task that starts with my email app
  • errands
  • google - Yep. It earns its own context. I do use it that much.
  • mac anyplace - Anything that requires Mac work but not internet connectivity. Mostly administrative.
  • monitoring - a more active version of "waiting on" -- when I really need something and am, say, watching a page for updates or leaning on a late delivery
  • print
  • refactor - This is a new one. When I find an item isn't getting done -- for whatever reason -- I tell myself to go back later and refactor it (see also)
  • read
  • schedule - Something tentatively planned that hasn't been nailed down yet. Also RSVPs I owe people.
  • web
  • write

Unactionable or deferred contexts

(Note: the "+" sign tells kGTD that these contexts don't generate next actions or iCal syncs)

  • agenda +
  • cogitate + - Stuff I'm just percolating on for a while.
  • delivery + - Mmmmm....FedEx.
  • fallow project + - This is a weird context I use to mark projects that are dead or on-hold (it actually will be obviated by a feature in the next version of kGTD)
  • later-maybe +
  • not-yet + - If I want to take an action out of the queue for a while, I change it to "not-yet" from its active context. Accumulating too many of these is lazy, so I frequently shunt them off into a project support file.
  • opportunities + - Speaking, writing gigs, possible interviews, etc. This is similar to "sales leads" I guess. Just stuff I've been asked to do in a non-specific way, and that I want to keep track of.
  • projects-next + - Similar to "not-yet," I sometimes use this as a placeholder for something that's about to start, and that I don't want to lose track of when looking at what's on my plate.
  • waiting-on +

So, that's a snapshot of where I am now. A number of those contexts are "on the bubble" right now -- too cute or fussy or potentially procrastinatable (is that even a word?). I comb through contexts in general every few weeks, or more often when one of them seems to have become an oubliette for the items I want to banish from thought. That's a good sign that the context is not about action at all and should be removed or refactored immediately.

iCal Groups

And now: the sexy.

iCal sucks in a lot of ways (that's for another post), but it does do one thing I love: it let's you put your separate "calendars" -- which, in our case, are the actionable contexts we've synced from kGTD -- into "groups." I'm using this to make three "meta-contexts" that mirror the very general types of work into which all my tasks (and their parent contexts) belong.

  • Real World - Primarily physical or location-based stuff (esentially: "non-computer" contexts)
  • Think - Brain work, decision-making, and creative stuff -- which usually occurs in the proximity of a Mac, but absolutely does not have to.
  • Compute - Tasks that by their nature require direct computer interaction: this is the "@computer" uber-category

But why bother with organizing these into meta-groups? Ah, because it makes it so easy to reveal or hide all the tasks that I can work on at a given time, just by ticking the group's little click box. This makes having many contexts so much more manageable. So, if you're keeping score, here's how they break out in iCal

  • Real World
    • errands
    • chores
    • calls
    • read
  • Think
    • brainstorm
    • decide
    • research
    • schedule
    • write
  • Compute
    • desk
    • design & code
    • email
    • google
    • mac anyplace
    • print
    • web
    • monitoring

Which gets me to the secret point of this post. It's the basic kGTD approach that's been really useful to me:

  • Use kGTD to collect, process, organize, and review
  • Use iCal to do

This has the effect of keeping you really focused on the doing rather than the fiddling. Once you've got kGTD set up to a point where you trust it to mind your world, try living in iCal instead. For one thing it's a lot less engrossing to play with, which might send you back to work more quickly than the amusement park ride that kGTD can be. You end up with a shorthand way to mentally gauge your "doing-to-fiddling ratio"; If you find you are spending a lot more time in kGTD than iCal you know it's time to ramp up the working and dial down the fussy meta work.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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