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Back to GTD: Simplify your contexts

This post is part of the periodic “Back to GTD” series, designed to help you improve your implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

As we've noted before, GTD contexts lose a lot of their focusing power when either a) most of your work takes place at one context (e.g. "@computer"), or b) you start using contexts more for taxonomical labeling than to reflect functional limitations and opportunities. As you may have discovered, these problems can collide catastrophically for many knowledge workers, artists, and geeks.

Part of what makes the Natural Planning Model so attractive are the decisions that can be guided by contextual limitations ("I'm near a phone" vs. "I'm at the grocery store" vs. "I'm at my computer"). While it's definitely a kind of "first world problem" to have, facing the unlimited freedom to chose from any of a bajillion similar tasks from similar projects with similar outcomes is not nearly as fun as it first sounds. Consider the contextual hairballs of certain jobs and tasks:

  • Developer - Much of the work is writing new code, fixing old code, or testing code. All of these require essentially the same tools and environment, so how do you apply real contexts?
  • Writer - Needs to research, draft, revise, and edit manuscripts. While the "Write book" project will break down nicely into multiple sub-projects and tasks, how do you satisfactorily "context-ize" this physically identical work?
  • Designer - Whether coming up with a print layout, web design, or what will become a physical artifact, how do you segment the work further than "@photoshop" and "@illustrator"?

This causes many of us to fashion more or less phoney-baloney "sub-contexts" that reflect some facet of the parent (e.g. "@computer" might contain "@email," "@web," "@code," "@print," and so on). While this makes terrific sense from a logical standpoint (and it can certainly have its uses), it doesn't reflect the true meaning of a context, at least in my own mind: "what tools, resources, opportunities, and limitations are unique to this situation?" or put slightly differently from the perspective of choosing tasks at a given time, "what are the things I can't work on now given where I am and the tools to which I have access?"

More and more, I think the solution may be to toss out or consolidate any contexts that don't have unique functional attributes. I mean, by all means, keep them if they're working for you, but if you find yourself spending more time deciding where to file tasks than actually completing them, you might consider dialing your contexts back as far as you can stand. For the geeks in particular, consider having two and only two computer-related contexts: "@online" and "@computer-anywhere." If you have other contextual needs, add them in with care, then periodically revisit to make sure you aren't maintaining superfluous parts.

If you feel a gnaw about the loss of your old contexts, try to shunt some of the mental load into sub-projects and better verb choices in your tasks. Where you once had (as I did) an "@print" context, consider whether an "@computer" task of "Print Jim's email" might be sufficient for the job. Remember, maintaining fewer buckets is always a good thing.

As you doubtless have learned, this is ultimately all about choosing valuable work and then tracking it as simply as possible via carefully-worded task reminders. No amount of meta-crap can magically transform junk tasks into stuff you really want or need to do. Contexts can help shape your day, but they're less than useful if they don't track realistically to the demands of your work.

melissa's picture

I'm a UI designer, and...

I'm a UI designer, and I work on a number of different projects that tend to take differing and organic paths. The type of work that I do is always the same, but the way I do it is very different for each project. For example, for Project A, I produced wireframes in Illustrator and Graffle, but for Project B, I made them on a whiteboard and took pictures of them; for Project C, I produced visual designs myself in Photoshop or Illustrator, but for Project D I art-directed another designer to produce them. Thus, classic contexts don't quite work for me - they require too much precision, or have no relation to the mental state that I need to be in to accomplish each type of task.

So I've broken my contexts into what I'd term as work modes, and they look something like this:

  • correspondence (for phone, email, etc)
  • scheduling
  • attend (for meetings or the like)
  • lead (for meetings I have to lead - they usually require some sort of preparation)
  • ideation (sort of like brainstorming, only in most instances i'll need some sort of deliverable or action at the end of it - an email, a paper sketch, a whiteboard photo, a meeting, a phone call)
  • wireframing
  • visual design
  • art direction
  • housekeeping (this is for stuff like doing internal paperwork, submitting expense reports, mopping floors, laundry etc.)
  • errands (anything that requires me to go somewhere that's out of my usual routine)

This way, my contexts work for all of my projects, regardless of "where" (computer or not computer, particular application, home or office) the work itself falls... and I also am able to resist the temptation of making my to do lists 100% precise, which I must admit is a tempting procrastination method. :)

It's also worth noting that I don't do a very good job of keeping my work and personal time separate. Personal stuff happens at work all the time, and work stuff happens at home all the time, and this is something that I've come to accept. Part of that may be the nature of my employment; the rest is probably some sort of personality disorder I should seek professional help for. My contexts reflect this, and would require some modification for folks who keep their personal tasks completely separate from their work tasks.




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