There was a time not so long ago when I would write down all my tasks on a single master list in my day planner and as I completed my tasks, I would cross them off that list. That worked fine in my earlier days, but when I started my printer supply business, that master list went from being a single page to an entire pad of paper! I quickly realized that I needed a new system for managing my tasks.
That’s when I came across David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, which offered a new way of managing tasks that made a lot of sense to me. Allen said that trying to manage tasks via a master list was mentally-draining and it didn’t adequately address the fact that tasks have inherent dependencies assigned to them that need to be met before they can actually be completed. Allen suggested that it’s better to have your tasks grouped by common dependencies and assigned to one of multiple task lists, which he refers to as contexts. There’s less mental stress involved when you’re dealing with a task list that you can actual get done versus one where you must pick and choose which tasks you can actually get done right now. I quickly adopted this system of context-based task lists and my productivity sky-rocketed.
What is a Context?
You can think of a context as a group of tasks that all share a common constraint. Usually that constraint is either a physical location or it's a required resource. It might also be a specific individual or group of individuals. A typical list of contexts might include:
@Office - for all your business or professional tasks that must be done at the office
@Home - for all the personal tasks that can be done at home
@Town - for the tasks that are done around town
@Computer - for all the tasks that can be done on your computer
GTD'ers usually designate a context by placing an "@" symbol in front of it. The beauty of organizing your tasks by context is the fact that they’re already pre-sorted for you - so all you need to do is to go through each task within your context and get them done without having to worry about priority or having the necessary resources available.
How to Set Up Your Context Lists
In order to build a set of contexts that work well for your situation, it's important that you focus on the core dependency that each task relies on. Buying milk, eggs, salad and juice are dependent on me being at the supermarket in order to get them done, so it would be logical for me to have an @Supermarket context for these. Paying cable and utilities bills for some people might be an @Home context. Since I pay my bills online, this is actually an @Computer context for me. There’s plenty of flexibility built into this system to customize it to your heart’s content, so long as you stick to the criteria for building your context lists.
Creating contexts based on physical location is probably the easiest constraint to define because it’s generally the easiest to identify. The action of buying milk has to be done at the supermarket. The action of submitting a report to your boss has to be done at work. Location-based contexts work well for people who have definite edges around their various roles and responsibilities. Employees working for a company fit well into this profile because they typically have the most separation between their personal space and their professional space. Location-based contexts might be less effective for someone who operates a home-based business or is a freelancer because technically there’s no separation between work and personal environments in so far as physical location is concerned.
In addition to location, you can also set up your contexts based on resources. Having the necessary tools available that will allow you to complete your task is every bit as important as being in the right location to get it done. A common example of this is the @Computer context. If you only own a desktop, then I guess this might be a location-based context for you, but if you’re like me and go everywhere with a laptop in hand, then location is no longer a factor - the dependency lies with having the computer with you. Resource-based contexts are used more frequently by people who travel a lot or who are always on the move, like consultants, attorneys, professional speakers and sales professionals.
I personally would not create contexts based on subjective factors such as priority level or energy level. The problem with this is that 1) they’re not true constraint-based contexts, and 2) they’re prone to avoidance at the sub-conscious level for some people. Let’s face it, we know that high-priority and high-energy level tasks are difficult, so it’s easier to avoid those and pick away at the lesser tasks first and that defeats the whole purpose of GTD.
Beware of Too Many or Too Few Contexts
One of the things that you'll have to be careful of when you're customizing your context lists is not going overboard with building too many of them. It's a common problem amongst GTD'ers and it's something that David Allen warns against. He recommends creating the least amount of contexts necessary to fit your purpose. The problem that arises when you create too many specialized contexts is that now you have too many areas to check for tasks and that defeats the whole workflow model of GTD. An example of this is someone who sub-divides their @Computer context into @Amazon, @Facebook, @Twitter, @Email, etc. While none of these contexts are bad in and of themselves, if you only have one or two tasks per context, or if you fail to regularly check these contexts daily, then it defeats the whole purpose of GTD. It would probably serve you better to combine your specialized lists together into one broad context in order to keep your GTD system clean and efficient.
On the flip side, there might be times when you need to divide your context in order to make it more manageable. Perhaps you have a growing list of 30+ next actions under your @Computer context. Large lists can be difficult to manage and review, so you might want to break it down into a separate context such as @Email to make your review and execution more effective.
When to Place Your Tasks Into Your Context Lists
You should assign your tasks to a specific context when you’re processing your inbox. Remember that in the collection stage of GTD, you’re primary goal is non-evaluative collection of all your “stuff.” Once all your stuff is collected, then you can evaluate what each piece is and assign it to its particular place. When you come across a task during your processing stage, then that’s the point where you can place it onto one of the context lists that you’ve created.
Contexts and Evernote
I mentioned in a prior post that I use Evernote as my GTD software of choice. Contexts are tailor-made for Evernote. I simply set up a group of tags in Evernote with the “@” symbol in front of it and Evernote automatically bumps those tags to the top of my list for easy sorting. I use both the desktop version and the mobile version of Evernote as my universal collection tool and when I process all my tasks in my Evernote Inbox, I simply assign it a context tag. When I’m ready to get work done, I just click on the appropriate context tag and it pulls up all the tasks that are pending within that context. It’s a wonderful system that’s allowed me to be highly productive.