Getting grasp of contexts. Ownership and Review

Although this is not a series this post nicely links with a last weeks post about general usefulness of contexts in keeping productive.
I’ve been practicing GTD for few years and at first could not make any sense out of contexts. Sure I set them up as described in the Getting Things Done book but they never clicked with me. Each time I was revisiting my implementation of GTD whether it was on paper or digital I would set up context based list and rarely look at them. As the action became older and older I would grow in frustration over the idea. The situation changed when two things happened: I took the ownership of contexts and when I started to look at those lists.

Owning the contexts

My initial set of contexts was very much based on the suggestions provided in the GTD book so I would set things like @computer, @phone, @home, @desk etc. Such setup didn’t work for me very well I didn’t have may phone calls to make, nor many things to do at desk. Since I kept my home and office system separate @work context was completely obsolete.

After much browsing and listening to some podcast I came across Augusto Pinaud and his way of setting up contexts. To put it simply he owns them which mean he creates and deletes them as needed. This is what I also applied into my implementation. I spent a bit of time analysing different aspects of my life, where are the items I need or want to do and then come up with a context that was relevant.

The second aspect of owning the context was to create them on an ad hoc basis, almost like project tasks. If there would be a set if items to do prior a holidays I would set up a context for that and add all the related tasks. Now I have fairly stable list of contexts that includes items like @home or @computer and @email plus I supplement it with contexts that I create on the fly some are reusable like @trip or @bike but many are one-off items.

This really helps in focusing on the task that can be done in a given setting.

Looking at the lists

Creating lists of actions is one thing but actually looking at them is a completely different type of beast. Although this may sound odd very often I would not look at my lists. There would be something else that would grab my attention and I would ignore them for a good while. The sole purpose of these list was to actually help focus on the predefined work as opposed to looking for a new and shiny to look at.

How I started to look at the lists?

There are couple strategies that I tried to make sure I look at my lists on regular basis. Initially they were a bit of an annoyance but over a period of some weeks they helped with creating a necessary habit ie looking at my lists. The importance of this habit is particularly big as it increases the trust of your system.

keep them in front and always handy

  • pin them in your browser so the webapp of you choice opens as soon as you launch your browser
  • print a fresh list of tasks daily
  • stick your Most Important Tasks o your monitor or on a wall in front.
  • add a tasks widget on your smartphone’s home screen. My favorite task management app Remember The Milk does that and I know few others like Astrid and GTaks do that too.

get reminder to check contexts list

  • set up an email reminder service to give you a prompt about today’s tasks. I get a daily email from Remember the Milk at 6am with a list of tasks due for that day
  • set up few repeating tasks to remind you of checking the to-do items at different times of day. Initially you could do it at 9:10 am just as you start your day then 12:00pm and last at 16:45. Although this is quite meta i.e. to use tasks to remind about tasks the purpose is to get a reminder or a ping to look at things you decided to do.
  • third option is to use a calendar and set appointments for yourself to look at specific list/context. For example you want to look at your email only 2-3 times a day making it an event in your will help you not miss the processing time.

Two steps

Successful and long-term use of any productivity system no matter how simple or complex, stems from the fact that, the person using it owns it. Perhaps they are following one of the well-known methods like Covey or GTD but even then they make the necessary adjustments so that the system fits into their lives, that it’s matches their working habits, tools etc. There is absolutely no point in following someone else approach as you will most likely fail.

So the two steps needed to grasp the context and making the most out of them are

  1. set up YOUR contexts based on where and how you work and what tool you use
  2. create a simple support structure that helps you make sure you look at the lists of contexts.

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