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.

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.

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.