GTD Contexts: Proactive vs. Reactive

Apr 10, 2015
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

I’ve always struggled with the contexts portion of GTD. I’ve tried tools, locations, energy levels, times of the day, mindsets, and on and on.

My problem is knowing when to switch contexts. How do I know when to stop working on one context and pick up the next? I have to first notice that I’m in a new context and then make the switch. It sounds simple.

And it is simple if you can tell when you’ve switched contexts. But it’s challenging to notice that you’re in a new context when you use energy levels or mindsets as contexts. If you use tools and locations it’s a bit easier, but a tool based context is problematic when one tool can do most of your work and that tool is with you most of the time.

It starts to clear up when you think about having two different types of contexts - Reactive and Proactive. Stopping to think about how you use contexts in these categories makes it much easier to see the line between them and know when to switch.

Reactive Contexts

If we have a change of scenery or need to shut down a computer, we can easily see that something has changed. We are reacting to our environment. This is how the traditional view of tools and locations for contexts typically works. We look up and see that we are in the office or we have a piece of paper in front of us, so we work on @Office or @Paper respectively.

Proactive Contexts

Sometimes we need to put ourselves in certain state to work. This could mean a list for @Communicate or @Offline. In both cases, you need make a decision to open email, pick up the phone, or turn off the wifi. You’re deciding to do something and then switch to the context that applies.

The Problem

The problem that I have with Reactive Contexts is that I don’t just happen to find myself at a computer. I don’t just happen be in the office. I have to make a decision to turn on the computer or go to the office. Once I get there I’ll react to the change, but I proactively decided first.

So the question is this: do reactive contexts actually exist?

I would venture to say no. At least, I haven’t been able to think of any that happen without me making a decision first. In every case, I’m deciding to change my environment based on the work that needs to be completed.

What should contexts be?

I will NOT say this is for everyone. I’ve seen a lot of GTD systems with radically different takes on contexts. And they work great for the people who use them. I want to pose a simple suggestion that takes little thought when deciding which context to work on.

I suggest going back to the basics of GTD and using tools and locations as contexts. Those should be the base while filling in with others as needed. For example, I use a single context for my writing - @Write.

If we use contexts that are obvious enough to require zero thought, you can easily determine what to work on. You don’t have to think much when your contexts are Mac, iPhone, and Office. However, you still need to decide to use each tool or go to that location.

The Trick

A lot of people decide not to use these basic contexts because the tools are with us at all times. And that’s a fair point. I lived in that camp for a while. It’s taken time, but I’ve come full circle on these and finally figured out how to use them.

Each night, I look through all of the tasks available to me and pick the tasks that need to be done tomorrow. I call it my Dashboard. The Dashboard is not a list of what I want to do or feel like I should do. It’s a list of tasks that need to be completed tomorrow in order to help someone else keep moving. I keep this list as short as possible. Sometimes, it only has one thing on it and in one instance it was actually empty.

After completing my morning ritual and my daily review the next morning, I work through my Dashboard list. At this point, the contexts don’t really matter. They tell me what tool I need to grab to do the task.

When the Dashboard is empty, I either pull up a project that’s weighing on my mind and start working on it or I look at my context list and start at the top. Yes, I know. I’m not actually working by context at this point. That’s because the normal scenario of my work has every context available at once.

It starts to click for me when I’m not in my normal scenario - when I’m on a plane, driving, without wifi, or my phone dies. When these things happen, the number of contexts that I can work on shrinks and I can take it in stride and keep working. It’s when something is abnormal or broken that these contexts shine.

I love the simplicity of this. It stops my subconscious mind from constantly checking to see if I’ve changed contexts. It puts me in a mindset of doing tasks instead of wondering if I’m working on the right thing. It’s simple.