Power of GTD

I subscribe to the Productive Living Newsletter which is a David Allen Company monthly update on different Getting Things Done matters including regular food for thought from David Allen.

In March edition following sentence caught my eye:

The power of GTD® is in the basics—capturing, clarifying, organizing, reflecting, and engaging—completely and consistently applied.

SANG Conference Interview with David Allen

Continuing from my Mondays’s post I’m in the GTD refresh mode. Coincidentally GTD time has put up an interview with David Allen from SANG Conference in 2012. 

It’s very informal and easy going conversation about the GTD, it’s impact and some practical tips for implementation and keeping things current. 

The interview is an hour long but well worth the time.

Best practices for GTD 5 stage workflow

Over the last weekend I’ve spend some time refreshing my GTD(r) system as it got stale.

My lists were out of date, next actions weren’t next action but rather undefined todo items. Project list was in bad condition too. 

Oddly enough the only list that was in relatively good shape was my Waiting For list. This is probably because I have more interest in making sure I get the things I’m waiting for.

Before I began the whole thing I was looking for some nice way to get the GTD principles refreshed in my mind and also some quick tactical tips to get me going. 

GTD times site was a perfect resource for that. Back in 2011 they have published a whole series about the best practices of GTD workflow.

GTD Best Practices: Collect (Part 1 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Process (Part 2 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Organize (Part 3 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Review (part 4 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Do (Part 5 of 5) | GTD Times

If you’re stuck in a rut or need quick rundown of main principles and the flow this is fantastic way to get you going.

Contexts.Granularity vs usefulness.

Contexts are great way to break down work into different chunks based on specific criteria. Rather than keep looking at a long list of things todo you split them based on location, type of work, tool, mood, time estimate etc. Anything that can assist you in breaking down your work and organising it into more meaningful chunks can be used as context.

The key benefit of using contexts is in grouping similar tasks together which allows you to take the advantage of the location you’re in, tools you have and the energy available. Also working in contexts reduces the waste normally related with continuous switching between different tasks.

When setting up contexts there is a great sense clarity and purpose. Thing are nicely stacked in piles but the true test comes when you’re doing the work. Can you successfully maintain system in such great detail. Do it make sense to have a context @printer or @shed or @shopXYZ if you don’t really print and visit shop XYZ once a year usually with specific purpose?

You can go very deep with contexts, breaking things down into very small categories. Although this may seem like excellent idea it may be a way of hiding tasks out of the view. This way the granularity can hinder the work you need to do.

So how can you maintain the usefulness of contexts and not get bogged down in the minute detail of managing too many of them?

  • match them to your work – this is key, context should be aligned with your work, think of the places, and tools specific to your line of work and design context around them.
  • keep them at bay – don’t allow to grow them beyond being manageable. Can you manage 6-7 contexts, can you manage 15? Avoid keeping context with 2-3 items in them as you will lose sight of them quickly.
  • have easy access to them – make sure you can access all of you contexts. Regardless of the system you use to keep your list handy so that you can take the advantage of the different places and tools and the are available. Do lose the time simply because you don’t have the right list.
  • review regularly – do a regular assessment of contexts you use, see if they have the right tasks, do they still match to your line of work, are the locations right, are tool still relevant.

Doing these small tasks and asking these simple questions will help you maintain a nicely tailored suite of context that keep you covered at work and home.

How many contexts do you have, do you manage them in any way? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Climbing the GTD ladder

GTD as a productivity methodology seems very tactical down to earth you have your action lists, contexts, projects and your project files. There is a lot of focus put on this area, after all it’s a bottom up approach system. This means that you sort out the chaos of your day to day activities and then look at the higher perspectives.

Where does it lead? Is the direction right?

So having a good grip on day to day stuff is really just a beginning. Once the mess around you sorted you will look further and new things will pop up. Do I take on project A or project B but project D looks exciting too. That means you need to make choices. At the same time having everything neatly organised for the sake of if isn’t really the point. It’s actually quite absurd. So why then? This is one of the BIG questions?

Where am i going?
What do i want from life?
Is the direction right?

GTD levels

Finding satisfying answers isn’t quick and easy process and it’s usually effect of long self reflection and deep thinking. As you go through a process of figuring these answers GTD can help you with leveraging your discoveries and integrating them in to your life. GTD offers the latitude model with two levels focused on the tactical aspects and other three dedicated to more strategic views.

  • 30k feet is about 1-2 year goals and defining what you want to become true in the space of 12-24 months. This relatively short time frame allows for being quite specific and action/project orientated.
  • 40k feet is about 3-5 year goals which although specific are usually beyond the have or do aspects and touch more on experiences, quality or life.
  • 50k feet focuses on life purpose, perhaps the most difficult one to know fully, it’s centered around values, contribution, meaning.

The content of these latitudes takes time to develop which means that they are less likely to change from day to day. Once you’ve decided what they are then they should form part of regular review. Some like to look at these levels on weekly basis others prefer monthly or quarterly. The frequency depends on you and how often do you want to ensure you’re on course.

Why you need to know the answers

So you’ve established your higher levels but what are other benefits that just knowing the direction. Where else clarity around your vision comes handy?

  • dealing with opportunities – every now and then we’re presented with opportunities,moving to another country, taking up a new job etc. These are big decisions and not easy to make. Yet once they are done in the context of 30-50k feet views they come much easier. It’s easier to see whether things fit into what we want, whether this step or that opportunity brings us closer.
  • too much going on – trying to tackle too many projects at once isn’t a pleasant thing. At some point you need to choose where your time goes. The easiest way to do it simply to know which of the projects will actually take you closer to your goals and choose those.

  • no effects – you put effort into some projects but can’t see any results. It seems that you’re spinning your wheels. This is perfect opportunity to review the higher altitudes. Look where you want to get, what are you aiming at and the see what needs to change. There may be projects that need to be dropped and other that need to started. This is very much like checking you’re map while walking a trail.

To sum this up figuring out your goals and lives purpose is like closing a loop. Whether you look at projects that you want focus on or those that should be abandoned, clarity on top will make the decisions easier. The better the decision you make the closer you will be to achieving desired vision.

Why now?

To be honest, I haven’t been looking at the higher levels often enough eventhough I created my yearly strategy. Over the last few weeks I’ve been getting different prompts to change that. First my mentor (really starting too see the benefits) got me to think about 5 year vision, that spurred further thinking about the direction of this blog and then I wasn’t happy with the results of my efforts on various fronts. As consequence I’ve looked at my project list, I’ve assigned myself specific actions to take time and think about higher levels. The process isn’t finished and I expected it will take a while but so far I like what I see. The image is getting sharper and the direction is getting clearer.

GTD workflow with Remember the Milk

The beauty of Getting Things Done methodology is that it can be used with any tool whether it’s a paper notebook or digital application sitting on your laptop or mobile phone.

In the center of GTD sits a workflow model which helps you deal with incoming information, requests, ideas and task. This model is based on the following five stages:

  1. capture
  2. process
  3. organise
  4. review
  5. do

It’s a very simple process, yet very powerful as it allows you to make decisions about the things that enter your space and whether you are willing to do them and if so when. As I rely on this model on daily basis I thought I would share how my current task manager of choice Remember the Milk helps me apply it on daily basis.

Capture

Capturing ideas, thoughts, tasks, requests etc is the basic element of well functioning GTD implementation. All the things that have your attention should be routed into an Inbox for later review and assessment. David Allen says:”Your mind is for having ideas not for holding them”. Remember the Milk offers a multiple ways of capturing your information

  • use the input panel on the web
  • use bookmarklet to quickly capture ideas in your browser
  • on the go use smartphone app and the new task widget (Android only)
  • send emails to RTM using subject line to define the task
  • send tasks via Twitter using @rtm account.

These options allow me to capture information very quickly and efficiently regardless of where I’m or do and have it in a single place waiting for me to process it.

Processing

Processing is the stage where you need to decide whether the things you’ve captured are still worth pursuing, should you delete them or put it of for later. This is important stage as not everything you captured will be completed. Having ideas does not mean we need to pursue them all. This state allows to weed out things that we don’t want to spend our time on. Processing focuses on determining whether I want to accomplish the task or idea that I’ve captured. If the answer is “NO” I delete the task or move it to someday maybe list for later consideration. If the answer is “YES” it means the task enters my system permanently and at this moment I apply things like tags, due dates, time estimate, list name etc. These elements will define the context of the task like @home, @computer or the location in the static lists that I use. Adding all these elements means that the organising stage is very easy and almost automated.

Organise

There is so much flexibility there that I could spend months discussing different ways you can organise the tasks using Remember the Milk. Best approach is to keep this simple and relevant and build up from there. For me organising tasks very easy and I heavily rely on smart list which effectively act as a self organising mechanism. Let me explain. I use a static list to manage my areas of focus and at this moment use two list. This is the only time I have to manually assign tasks to a specific list.

For my context, project and waiting for lists I rely on smart list. These list are dynamically generated list that display tasks based on the selected criteria. So if at the processing stage I add tag @computer then my context list “@Computer” will display that task too. Simple no dragging and dropping no moving around etc. Relying on smart list reduces a lot of friction and steps necessary to make sure that my list are up to date and include all items. I also have a “no tag” list which shows me items which don’t have a tag, this is little security net so I can pick up on lost items.

Review

Once you’re tasks are nicely organised it is time to review the relevant list and pick few things that you really want to put your attention on. I have a special list called MIT (thanks Jason Womack) which I update on almost daily basis. The list will include my critical tasks for a given day or a week. The process of adding items is simple, I scan my list and assign selected task a priority level 1 which mean any item of this type will be added to the MIT list. If all planned items are done I look through my context and pick something from the relevant one.

Do

For the doing phase make sure you have easy access to your Remember the Milk account and pick the first task you planned for today. To make sure I get to seem them I have RTM pinned in my browser and a widget set on my phone to display these. Then all it’s left is to do the work.

RTM is so powerful that you can create a very complex list structures and workflows which will involve a lot of steps. My preference it to keep things simple and as close to GTD model as possible while still retaining some of my personal preferences. From experience I can tell that the more elaborate structure/system the less likely you will be able to sustain it. Keep it as simple as you can it will pay off.

Managing areas of focus with Remember the Milk

Lets kick off with explaining what areas of responsibility are? In the GTD methodology your primary focus is on next actions and projects. These two elements reflect the tactical level of the productivity system i.e. the things you do now or as soon as possible.
A one level above that sits areas of responsibility which define different aspects of life. Rather than show a specific outcome, they point to an ongoing activity or quality that you want to achieve like job responsibilities, family, health, finances etc. Their main purpose is to act a reminders for all the different strands of life that you’re engaged in. Because they rarely reflect finished state they help with spurring ideas about things so each may spur new project or action ideas. Regular review of areas of responsibility can assist in bringing some balance or surface a need to look at an area that was neglected for a while.

Depending on your choice you can either track your areas of focus more intuitively and keep them on a list in your notetaking application or you can embed them right into your system. I happen to go for a mixed solution where I have list of areas of responsibility created in Evernote but I also like keep an eye on where my attention goes and for that purpose I’ve leveraged Remember the Milk. This approach allows me to analyze my tasks and really see what has my attention and where my time goes.

For the tactical element of my task management I rely on tags and smart lists to create context based next action lists as well as keep track of project and waiting fors. For monitoring of the areas of focus I’ve decided to use static lists.

If you haven’t defined your areas of focus now might be a good time.

Simply pick up a pen and piece of paper or open new document in your program of choice and start thinking about different areas of your life. Think in broad and generic terms, what are you responsible, how depends on you etc.

Jot these down and refine further, look for emerging common themes. Most likely you will have between 8-12 items but less is ok too. A higher number might be too big and you may need to refine things further or seriously reassess your commitments and obligations.

Static Lists

Static lists are the foundation of RTM application. They allow for creation of all the different lists that you may need. You can create unlimited number of lists, any task can only belong to a single static list i.e. if you add task to your HOME list than it will not show up in the WORK list.

This is significantly different from smart list which can show you any task that meets the search criteria regardless of the static list it belongs to.

Once task is assigned to a static list it’s in a separate silo which makes it excellent tool for analysis of how many task are created/completed in list. If you name list your lists based on your areas of focus you gain immediate access to understanding what has your attention. Simply the more tasks you have in any given list the more important the area it represents.

Managing static lists happens through the Settings panel and the Lists tab where you can create, archive, merge or delete lists. Because of the additional steps required to manage them they are less likely to be useful at the tactical level where a more rapid list creation occurs. Yet this makes them good tools for managing areas of responsibility as these don’t tend to change very often.

A small note on deleting lists, even if you delete a list your tasks will remain intact and they will simply be added to your default list. This is useful if you are still in the process of redefining your areas of focus and things are yet to settle.

How it works for me

My system relies on three primary static lists of which two reflect the focus of my personal system (Note I have a separate system for work tasks).

INBOX – this is my default list which mean any new task added which is not assigned to a static list will be in my inbox. When I’m in the processing mode each task in this section will be looked at assigned to one my other two lists.

ME – this list reflects all the actions and project related to my personal life and will include pretty much anything that is not related to my BLOG list.

BLOG – this is my third list that I heavily rely on and it reflects all of my endeavours related to this very blog, anything that is related to work that I put here will be assigned to this list.

I always make sure that tasks are processed every couple of days. At that stage I apply relevant tags, due date etc which define which smart list will pick it up. I also assign the static list name to indicate where a given task belong to.

This setup allows my to keep an eye the primary areas of my life. Every time I’m completing a more in-depth review of my stuff I look at the number of tasks and projects completed under each list. Since I use A bit better RTM extension I can see this number right next to the list name.

You may ask, so where are the other areas of focus? As I mentioned a more detailed list is included in Evernote which I review on regular basis. However in my personal experience these two are enough.

You circumstance may be different and you may prefer a bit more granularity. It that’s the case simply set up additional lists which reflect your areas of life in greater detail.

Finding focus with Remember the Milk

Couple weeks ago I was listening to a Mikes on Mics podcast episode 43 Routines where both Mikes shared their daily routines. I wholeheartedly recommend subscribing to this weekly show. Omnifocus is the key task management tool in their arsenal and it’s supplemented with 2-3 satellite apps and tools which include Asana, 30/30, Clear, Emergent Task Planner by David Seah. They use these tools to generate focus throughout the day by helping to define the tasks that must and should be done in first place.
This got me thinking about my process of setting Most Important Tasks and focusing on the key items using just a single tool.

In search of focus and building clarity

Everyone has a different approach to building focus in their work day. However the underlying goal is to find a way of defining where do you want to put your attention and making sure that you do accomplish the selected items. Whether you call it daily to-do list or defining MITs, setting few tasks that you consider critical helps make progress. Skipping on this and trying to wing it is a sure fire way to burnout and focus on what’s loudest and most recent. This may work for a while but if you really want to create something either at work or at home with out setting attention your aspirations and goal will never materialize.

I think the process of defining MITs is particularly helpful if you’re following the GTD methodology which helps you capture and organise various action and projects into lists. Overtime these list can grow substantially and present you with dozens or hundred of opportunities to choose from.

How to select MIT?

The process of defining MITs or your small daily to-do list can be painful. You need to say “NO” to all other tasks that sit on your lists and say “YES” to a selected few. I don’t think there is any science in deciding what you should focus on. The key is that whatever you decide to select is in line with your aspirations and these can only be defined by you. Being clear on where you want to go can make things easier. Although it’s nothing concrete I have couple criteria that I use in my own process:

  • you can accomplish it in one sitting i.e. 45-60 minutes of focused work
  • the task will progress a specific project or a goal
  • you will feel good about completing the task
  • I get “reminders” from various sources about the task to do i.e. someone mentions something, I see something related on the news etc.

When reviewing your list allow yourself to add only 4-5 items only. This may sound like a small number but if completed daily for a month or a quarter it can amount to sizable chunk of work and noticeable progress. Going after bigger number of tasks can be tricky and set you up for disappointment if you skip on too many items.

My approach

My personal approach to setting daily tasks and MITs is to stick with a single app. As I mentioned here before, Remember the Milk is my tool of choice and I try to make the most out of it. Usually, on daily basis I will review my context lists and select the tasks that I want to accomplish in a given day. Then for each selected task I assign priority level of 1. Once I’ve done that these actions are automatically added to my @MIT list in Remember the Milk. The list is a so called smart list which is updated dynamically so any time I flag an item as priority 1 it get added to my @MIT list. This is a very efficient way of allocating items and putting them on the right list with out a hassle of dragging thing around.

If you are interested this is the search syntax I’m using to generate this list and make sure it auto updates.

priority:1 and status:incomplete or due:today or dueBefore:today and status:incomplete

You will notice that list also pull up item that have due date set to today. This is intentional so that I can see what I’m already committed and I don’t put too many items on my plate.

 

For added impact, accountability and ease of reference one of the screens on my Android smartphone has a widget which displays all the important tasks that I should be looking at today.

Note on frequency

Although through out this post I’m referring to a daily to-do list and daily review things are not always that simple. Ideally you want to complete this daily to make sure you take time to reassess and refocus. Yet some weeks are busy with pre-scheduled items that leave very little time for any additional work. In those weeks I treat my list as a weekly focus list. Rather that punish myself for missing on items I will try to accomplish them in a given week depending on available time and energy. Making this allowance helps to keep momentum on those important items even if the time is tight.

Dealing with too many projects

If you follow GTD methodology then most likely you have plenty of projects. After all anything that takes more than 2 steps is a project. Over time this can be overwhelming and your project list becomes unmanageable. There are few things you could do with that.

1.Accept the limits.

You can’t do everything so you need to be careful what you allow into your space. We want to achieve a lot and we certainly can but not all at once. Overtime we will accomplish a lot but in given week we can only do this much. Limit the number of projects you work on only to those you can actually manage. Learn to say no, ask for guidance on priorities, make a good use of someday list and revisit things later.

2.Clean up

Dirt, clutter and overwhelm are result of inertia and leaving things unkept and stale. When your project list looks like that it’s time for a clean up. Remove completed or dead projects. If something has been finished mark it as done. Things have been cancelled, postponed for later. This means you no longer need to look at them. Make sure your project list reflects that. Delete those items. Your list MUST show only those items you’re actually working on this week or month.

3.Re-assess the purpose and end result

Has a project been stuck for weeks and you’ve avoided it like a plaque? Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics. Move away from the tactical level to take a look at the bigger picture. What is the purpose of the project? What do you want to achieve? Spend some time thinking about each and define where you want to get. Make it clear so there is no doubt about the end result.

4.Define the steps

Each project requires few steps to complete. If you haven’t done much about it, think of the necessary elements. Start from the end and work backwards until you get to first step. Then make a list the all the items and add at least one to your next action list. If this got you really excited book some time in your calendar and spend an hour or so working on the project.

5.Look at your priorities

If a project is your priority then why it’s not done? Re-define your priorities or look at them, giving yourself a fresh start. Once you’re clear, pick the first item and put the right amount of focus onto it. Schedule specific time to work on it. Add to your calendar and work on it daily until it’s completed.

6.Leverage reviews

Although, possibly most difficult aspect of GTD, review is one that helps to keep system up to date and working. Don’t skip it and make sure you do one as often as necessary. Once a week or every ten day will generally do but if you find that you constantly lose control do them more often. While doing the review make sure you review your project list. Add, drop or completely delete projects based on your current priorities and obligation. This will help you make sure you are only looking at things that have you focus.

Do you have a way of dealing with too many projects? What’s your best approach.

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.

Simplicitybliss Evernote GTD and reference files

Sven from Simplicityblis has a very insightful post about the intersection of Evernote GTD and reference files. His main point is that Evernote isn’t best at being your task manager although some seems to have done made it work like one (see Daniel Gold’s ebook or The Secret Weapon site. Where Evernote excels is storage of support and reference materials. Search, tags, notebooks, ability to index PDFs, audio and photo storing make it very powerful archive.
I would agree with Sven and this is how I now use Evernote. I Initially used it for content creation, storing ideas, research etc however since I moved to plain text for most content creation needs and list keeping using Evernote became much simpler. Before I blended various types of work and content now I have a nice and clear division between creation tools and storage/archiving.

Sven’s post: On Evernote, GTD, Reference and Support Material

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.

Conclusion

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.

Single actions, project actions and contexts

When implementing GTD you will notice there are two types of next actions.
Single actions – are those which are not related to any project or larger outcome. Once they are done there is nothing additional to do. Some examples include take out trash, call friend to catch up, etc.

Project actions – as the name suggests project actions are related to specific project and once one to-do is completed there is one or more waiting to be done.

The common element for both is context which denotes where a given action can be accomplished.

Navigating between the these might be a little confusing as it’s not always easy to figure out whether you should look at single actions or project actions, which context should take priority etc?

Few weeks ago I’ve read an excellent overview on how to approach this problem written by TesTeq. I would like to share it here because it’s an excellent advice that can be easy implemented and really helps understand what GTD is about. (The post was written in Polish so below is my paraphrasing of the advice.)

  •  if task was just a single item move to next item in the same context.
  •  if a task was part of a project you can select another action in the current context.
  •  if project is important focus on the next action from that project regardless of context. The key here is completing the project not just single action.

As you can see the advise is pure common sense but it shows how flexible and adaptable GTD is.

Many people complain about GTD that it creates too much overhead with all the lists, locations and contexts etc. Perhaps they haven’t experimented and adjusted the system to their specific needs.

If you like to focus on specific projects simply open the project file and tackle one at the time whether it’s making a call, writing an email or testing a bit o code. On the flip side if you travel a lot or shift attention between different work environments context are best way to approach your to-do’s.

As consequence of its flexibility and adaptability GTD is so popular and so widely adopted.

Frictionless is not structureless

One of the recent episodes of Mikes on mics podcast had a very interesting conversation about using paper templates to help sustain better productivity. Micheal Schechter made a good point that he needs structure to help him with the planning and thinking hence templates are excellent solution. In his eyes, these forms reduce the friction that a clean sheet of paper would have as they provide guidance and boundaries to his mind. Such approach might be very specific to Micheal but it’s got me thinking about interaction between friction and structure.
Very often we think of frictionless as totally rid of any structure, totally free. However frictionless really means to remove unnecessary obstacles, barriers so that things can flow smoother within a set of boundaries – structure.

Lets take it to the field or productivity. Frictionless productivity is not about getting rid of methodologies like GTD or Covey. A lot of us need them to help keep the focus and make sure we stick to the road and not drive throughout the fields. We want to maintain a system, an approach that let’s us organise thinking, tasks, projects etc. It’s not possible to act on every single idea or request the very moment it comes in hence you need a support structure.

Removing friction is about finding ways of accomplishing more in an easier fashion within the methodology of your choice. For me it’s been GTD and although I’m still not 100% where I would like to be, I do apply it every time I can.

When I’m looking at friction in my system I look at it in the context of the GTD workflow.

  • Are there any better ways to capture my ideas?
  • Can I organise my tasks in a more efficient way?
  • What steps can I remove or automate?
  • Are there ways of automating data flows between the apps I’m using?
  • Can I take better advantage of the features available?
  • What behaviors, habits decrease my effectiveness?

I don’t expect to always find an immediate solution, very often it takes time for an idea to pop up, sometimes I need to accept that my current tools can’t be pushed any further. I like this process/analysis as it allows me to look at the things I use and how to improve them.