Do You Know Your Contexts?

For the last decade or so, I’ve use a productivity system called GTD. It’s a framework rather than an app or an instructive system, so my system has looked different over the years.

The idea behind the system, at a basic level, is that you capture to-dos as they come, but process them later into appropriate lists that are then broken down into step-by-step tasks. Lists are then connected to “contexts” which are places/locations/tools needed to do work, so that when you sit down to work, you have a short list of items, all of which can be completed in one sitting.

I went from a paper and pen system, to a stack of index cards known as the hipster PDA (this one lasted me about 5 years)… and eventually to the system I use now, which is an app called Omnifocus. The way you manage the system is dependent on the user and their needs of course, but having about ten years of experience with GTD, I can say that there’s one thing that has always tripped me up.

And that is the idea of contexts. At first, I had two contexts. @Dorm and @Office (or @School when I was in college). Over time, I realized I needed an @studio and @car for creative tasks and errands, respectively. When I was a teacher, I used an @School context, but I also sub-contested in @PM and @AM, because certain to-dos were better to do in the morning (cognitive tasks, while my brain was still working) and some in the afternoon (like mindless copying, or simple grading).

If you’re developing a productivity system, my suggestion is to look around your world and determine what contexts your life is divided into. Make a list of those and then sort tasks accordingly. You can create project lists in which each item is paired with a different context, so that you can execute on the project-based axis or the context-based axis (this is much easier to do with an electronic system since you can sort by metadata).

And then… the key is simply to be aware of how your contexts are changing. As a freelancer who works remotely, I removed my @Office context from my system. I replaced it with tools – @iPhone, @Laptop and so on. This way if I’m on a particular device, I know exactly what could be accomplished. I still have an office space at home, but I pull up my @Laptop context for these sorts of sessions. If I’m out, waiting in a waiting room or something, I’ll pull up my @iPhone context.

It took me a while to feel free enough to change my contexts when needed. At first, they felt static, and it felt like if I changed any of them, I’d wreck my whole system.

Truth is, understanding contexts and what can be accomplished within them is key to a good productivity system, even if you only have one context.