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Gmail Outage or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GTD Contexts

My Toot about the Gmail outage

Like thousands of people yesterday, I was annoyed and inconvenienced by Gmail's unexpected 2-hour dirtnap. But, wow. Apparently, it just irrevocably hijacked the whole day for some folks. And even sent a few into a Dark Afternoon of the Soul that most 19th-century Romantic poets would have found a bit histrionic.

Now, as a user, polemicist, and nemesis of Apple's MobileMe problems, I'm not here to criticize the frustration about a broken cloud service; I know that feeling all too well and have the dents in my wall to prove it. But, I do want to talk about some strategies you can choose to employ whenever a change in access to anything unexpectedly rearranges your day. Because things do break, and there's no reason you have to break with them.

One of the things that's most helpful about a system like GTD is the way you learn to think of your work as something that can and should be viewed from multiple angles.

A 90-second GTD primer:

  • Project. Any desirable outcome that requires more than one physical action in order to be considered complete.
    • "Present a persuasive pitch to Henderson's group on 2008-10-03" is a Project.
  • Next Action. The next physical activity I could perform that moves a Project nearer to the outcome I want.
    • "Call Henderson to schedule time and location for 10/3 presentation" is the next action for my Project.
  • Context. Any limitation, opportunity, tool, or resource that lets me do one of the physical actions in my Project.
    • "@calls" is the Context for my Next Action
    • in this case, "@calls" serves as a list of all items I could do on any Project, so long as I have access to a phone.
    • (See? Different angle.)
  • The Four Criteria Model. The notion that Priority is only one of four criteria in deciding what to do at a given moment.
    • The other three are "Time Available," "Energy Available," and (you guessed it) "Context."

Got it? Contexts are a way to horizontally slice across all of your Projects in a way that lets you do what you can do at a given moment -- even if it's not the thing you want to do or most need to do. Because that's life. And, sometimes, life is a huge dick.

Like a famous religion and a handy bit of Psychology, Getting Things Done acknowledges that, while you have little or no control over the interruptions and unexpected change in your life, you DO have the power to decide what you want to do about it right now. So, while you can't run your life by Priority alone, you always have plenty to do. If you've learned to think in terms of Contexts. Get it?

So if you forgot your phone, skip "@calls," and move to anything else. Boss out to lunch? Skip "@Boss," and move to anything else. Internet went down? Skip "@web, "and move to anything else. Gmail is down? Yes! You've already guessed it! Skip "@email" and move to anything else. Anything else. Anything. Else.

Sure it's insanely frustrating and annoying to not have access to something you depend on. And, yes, it's natural to whine about it and even burn a few cycles on a fast, cathartic tantrum. But, friends, if you're so mad about an uncontrollable change in your life that it takes you off all your work for half a day, then you're still playing in the minor leagues of GTD. And you're not doing yourselves and the people you produce work for any favor in the bargain.

Plan in Projects, work in Contexts, and strive to not let anything stick to you more than you'd like it to.

And, seriously. Guys. When one door closes, just open a freaking window. An hour without email is a great time to dive into sixty guilt-free minutes of writing, reading, or even pencil-sharpening. Work the time.

Because it ends up being a lot more fun and useful to ride the wave than to yell obscenities at it for four hours.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


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.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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