Making Time for Contexts

Dec 19, 2014
Joe Buhlig
~5 mins

The difficult part of Getting Things Done (GTD) for me is contexts. What lists should I be using when I’m completing tasks?

It’s a question that a lot of people have asked. The book mentions things like Calls, Computer, Errands, Office, and Home as suggested contexts. But I always have a phone with me. So I can always make phone calls. I work from home. So Office and Home are one and the same. My phone is a computer. So I always have a computer on me.

I’ve tried a number of different concepts with contexts. I wanted something that made sense in our world today. With so many tools accessible at all times, I needed an easy way to break out my actions. Here are my failed attempts:

Tools

I originally tried listing actions by the tool it took to complete them – Laptop, iPad, Phone, Whiteboard. But I had to pick a tool to use for an action and many times had multiple tools in front of me at a time.

Applications

This seemed logical. Since a large portion of my work is on the computer, I made lists for the apps that I would use to do the task – Excel, SQL Server, Outlook. But I could easily launch any and all of them whenever I wanted.

Locations

I was excited about this one at first. Everything is based on where I am – Home, Work, Woodshop, Church. But I quickly realized that the lists for Home and Work could get long. It was depressing to see a list so long and I couldn’t decide what to work on.

Energy Levels

Now we’re getting somewhere. Break out your tasks based on how much energy you have – Low, Normal, High. I really wanted this to work. But the line between each was blurred. It’s hard to tell when I’m transitioning between Low and Normal or Normal and High.

Time/Energy Combination

I stole this one from Sven Fechner at Simplicity Bliss. They are a combination of how much energy and time you have for the task – Short Dashes, Full Focus, Brain Dead. I like how Sven uses Omnifocus so I spent a lot of time trying to make this one work. But again, I struggled to see the lines between one context and the next. I could never see when to switch contexts.

Periods in the Day

This one actually worked for a while. I had lists for the time of the day – Morning, Hours (when I was working), After Hours, Evening. But the lists were too long for me. I had a hard time deciding what to do with 30+ items on each list. I need more granularity than that.

The Overarching Problems

Here’s what I learned throughout my experiments.

  1. Tools are ubiquitous.

    With computers in our pockets, it’s too easy to pull them out and work from anywhere at any time. I need something that is tool agnostic.

  2. I can’t sense energy levels.

    As much as I pay attention to the amount of energy I have at a time, I still can’t decide when I’ve switched. I need a hard line for contexts as opposed to a judgement call.

  3. Reactive contexts don’t work.

    Most of these contexts were reactive, meaning you switch to a context when you realize you are in it. Ex: You pull up your Calls list when you have a phone in front of you. I need to use proactive contexts. I need to put myself in a context.

Using Verbs as Contexts

After a couple hours with a whiteboard I realized I like to see my tasks by the type of action needed to complete it. What verb do I need to do in order to check it off? My new contexts are:

  1. Communicate - calls, emails, social media replies, text messages.
  2. Create - writing code, creating presentations, making documents.
  3. Write - long form writing.
  4. Think - planning, brainstorming, and problem-solving tasks.
  5. Learn - things to Google or that I’m curious about – I used to call this my Distractions list.
  6. Read - books, articles, or documents I need to read or review.

Once I had these determined, I noticed two things. One, I really like seeing my tasks broken out by these verbs. Two, I had no idea how I would know when to switch from one context to the next.

The Hard Question

I was listening to a Workflowing podcast where Patrick Rhone posed an interesting question, “If not now, when?” Patrick later wrote about it on his blog.

The premise of the question is this: if it’s important enough that you’ve decided to do it, when are you going to do it?

Tying It Together

After listening to the podcast and reading the article, I wondered if that was the missing piece to this whole thing. I had my lists, but I have always struggled with knowing when to work on which list. What if I scheduled time for each list?

This might be why the Periods in the Day idea almost worked. If I know what time of day I work on each list, I’ll proactively go to that list and work on it. Simple.

With my new verb approach, I had created a perfect setup for this. I knew I liked writing in the late morning, why not put my Write list on the calendar for late morning? I then took it one step further and created a schedule for the week where I put every context on the calendar.

It took some tweaking, but I eventually determined the best time of day for each verb. I write in the late morning and do my thinking right before lunch. I do some learning right after lunch. As long as I stick to the schedule, I know that I’m in the right mindset at each time for the tasks I’m taking on.

Always Evolving

Our contexts do change over time and that’s ok. The type of tasks we’re doing will change over time and our stage of life will also change. The nature of living dictates that the lists we work on will change. Don’t be afraid to tweak them, but also make sure that you give them time before you change them again.