I’ve shared a couple of GTD tips previously, and today I’ll discuss another one that can be enormously beneficial, and yet generates a lot of debate in the GTD community. That’s the idea of context: a collection of next actions that share a set of requirements, like tools or location. I like to describe it as getting the reminder to take action when you’re in a position to do something about it.
If you’ve ever put an item by the front door so you’ll see it when you’re headed to work in the morning, you’ve already used the context idea. You might remember you promised to loan “Storm of Swords” to a coworker while you’re eating dinner, and when you get up and put it by the front door, you are eliminating the need to remember that action in the morning, when you will be rushing out the door and have other things on your mind. The action (“take book to Paul”) is available to you in the context of heading out the door, when you can complete it.
Any tool described as a GTD tool provides for the use of contexts. They’re basically tags that you can use to group tasks with similar requirements, and by convention start with the @ sign. You might have a context for @home and another for @work, or @online vs @outside, the latter to distinguish between actions that you can only do when you’re online, versus those that require you to be outside (mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, etc). Contexts are optional, and need to be tailored to your work and your way of working, but I find them very useful. I might have 4 different projects that each require me to send an email, so I can tag each of those actions with my @email context. The next time I sit down with 15 minutes free and open my email application I can also open Omnifocus (my GTD app of choice), check the @email context, and fire off those emails, making progress on all four projects, without having to think much about those projects.
Another useful implementation of context is agendas for people you work with. I currently have only one context in this category, @amy, for things that I need my wife Amy to complete. Anything we need to do or discuss together gets assigned to the @amy context, and then I can bring that list up at a time when we can work together on them. The image at the top of this post is a screenshot of a portion of my context list, including tags like @tools and @studio to sort actions that require me to get out my toolbox (“tools”) or that can only be done in my glass studio.
Another way that I’ve employed the concept of contexts is to route reminders to the right context, like the example of putting an item in front of the door. I often remember something I need to do at home when I’m out of the house and can’t do anything about it. We still have an answering machine at home, so when that happens I call home and leave a message to myself. Then when I get home and hit play on the machine I get a reminder in the context in which I need to take action.
There’s a lot of debate about contexts, generally coming from people who don’t find them useful, or consider them a waste of time. When I worked in EITS I needed to track the work of over a dozen people, and having an @person agenda for each team member helped. Now I don’t need that level of granularity. I found the same thing with contexts related to computer use, because I initially set up a context labelled “@online” and then found it didn’t help me, because 80% of my actions fell into that category. Contexts are powerful when they help you sort and filter your list of next actions, but the key is to use them only if they work for you, and only in ways that work for you.