Using contexts to enhance productivity

Fraser Speirs is dumping OmniFocus as for him there is only one context – online. With Evernote becoming his primary tool this means that he can do almost anything, anywhere. There is no longer a distinction between work and home. Fraser’s post prompted me to look at the spend some time thinking about context, their purpose and usefulness.

What are context for?

One of the key elements of GTD implemention is dividing your next actions based on the context in which they can be done. The main reason behind this idea was that you can’t complete every task anywhere. Certain tasks can only be accomplished in a specific place or need specific tools or access. This way one could “ignore” some actions until given context is available. Focusing only on tasks that can be accomplished means you’re not wasting time on those that can’t be done.

The “original” contexts are somewhat anchored in pre-internet era where the access to the web was not so ubiquitous. In that time contexts referred primarily to specific physical locations like @office, @desk, @shopxyz, @home, @phone.  Everything changed, once internet access grew exponentially, allowing us to work, connect, play anytime & anywhere The second element was the rise of the smartphones which became as powerful as computers from 10 years ago.  The same email that few years ago required expensive computer to send can now be written a very cheap phone.

Context in the online era & why they work

It would seem that in the always connected world context would become obsolete  Almost everything can be accomplished with a computer and internet access that is becoming ubiquitous. Everyone has a mobile phone so you can make calls at any time from anywhere. @Online seems to be the meta context encompassing everything. Think of it, what can you not do online? So you may ask why even bother with contexts? Are there any benefits to them at all? I my opinion using context is still valid and practical tool for managing your actions. Here how they help:

  • batch work – some tasks are best done in batches like dealing with email, post, processing receipts, making small system updates. Create a context that represent the type of work that can be done in a batch. Wait until you have few items there and tackle them in one go.
  • filter and categorize – contexts let you organise next actions into different groups. Dealing with a large single list of tasks can be daunting and disheartening. It’s difficult to see the progress on a such list. By adding contexts you can simply focus on tasks that you can actually do. You can also reduce distraction caused be mere existence of other tasks and filter them off from the current view. Look only at what’s appropriate to where you are and what you have available.
  • keep boundaries – with computer and internet access we can do anything but it doesn’t mean we can do everything. By adding context to an action we set some boundary for our work. We can put our attention on this specific area and work through it’s tasks and see the progress. The opposite would be jumping from calls, to writing, to thinking all in space of minutes. That’s hardly an effective use of resources that we have.
  • type of work – certain tasks can only be performed on special places or with special tools or in presence of specific people. Using context lets you accommodate such requirements. Imagine your ability to focus and produce good or excellent work if you would constantly shift from one physical place or mental state to another simply because that was the order of your task list. Applying context lets you leverage the fact that you are in specific place or make the most from the tool you now have access to.

How to use contexts?

The real power of using contexts for managing tasks comes from making them fit your needs. This means setting up contexts that match your work style, tools you use, locations etc. It’s no longer necessary to link them only with a place. Something that I have picked up from August Pinaud is to limit lists to a most of 20-30 items. Once the list gets bigger than that I look if the list can be divided into two or more smaller ones. Just to give you some examples of context I’ve been experimenting with:

@wordpress – for tasks related to my wordpress blog
@writing – for post ideas that I wanted to specifically develop further
@trip – for items that I want to complete before a trip
@race – for items that I want to complete before a race
@comment – list of links that I want to comment on.
@think – list of items to think about
@bike –  list of things to do with one of my bicycles

I don’t always have many tasks sitting in above list but I definitely benefit from them as they let me break my work into something specific. Apart from the above contexts I still use the standard items like @email, @home, @waiting for etc.

Recent discussions on use of contexts

There are two links that I wanted to share here. First is a conversation with David Allen on Mikes on Mics podcast where 20 min into to show the topic of context is discussed extensively.

The second link I wanted to share is a recording of the regular call of the GTD Virtual Study Group. The main guest is Augusto Pinoaud who has just published his short book “25 tip fro Productivity”. Augusto is a big proponent of context and uses them extensively.


To some people using contexts adds unnecessary complexity to task management. I think it may be true if you are working on a very small number of things and you complete your tasks as soon as they show up. Essentially if your task list is never longer than 10-15 items that contexts are not for you.

However for a majority of people the number of tasks that they want or must do exceeds the time available during a normal working day. For such types contexts are a practical and effective way of grouping similar tasks together  To make the most out of the context make sure they are your own. Whether you refer to a specific location or a tool as your context it does not matter, the key is that they fit into your working style. In the end what you really want is simply to work on the tasks you can do because your are in the right place, you have the right tool or the mood to do it.

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