Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Simply GTD: Do You Really Need Contexts?

Photo by: Nathan Borror

Guess what my answer is to the title question. Guess, I dare you.

You got it:


Is it a sin in the GTD community to speak ill of contexts? Maybe. Will I ask for forgiveness? No. Below are my reasons.

First, a caveat: if you are a businesswoman or man that on any given day is at a desk, your computer without internet, your computer with internet, a plane, running errands, on the phone, or in Denver, Colorado looking for that one restaurant you liked the last time you were in Denver, Colorado; if you actually have 14 people you need to call right now; if you really have 107 projects on your plate that all have their associated next actions; if you have a bunch of pressing agenda items you need to bring up immediately upon seeing each of 7 different people, then, read no further, this post and basically anything else I will ever write on this blog is and will be of no use to you. Go get things done. And add "Buy Maalox" to @errands.

Now for grad students and the like that are still reading. Here are my reasons:

Reason #1: You're not even close to the person described in the caveat. If you're a student that's not simultaneously running 3 businesses, and raising 2 kids, and constantly on the road, forget it. Let's go context by context through some classics. I promise I will admit when there are potentially useful contexts:

  • @computer: When are you not at your computer nowadays? Or how many times have you been in a context where you're really pressed to get things done but don't have your computer, and really can't stand looking through all those tasks that involve a computer? I seriously can think of zero situations like this. If you can, and I'm not being facetious, let me know. But I think it's safe to say that when grad students (or anyone reading this blog) are working they have a computer next to them or are in a very clear context where it's obvious what they need to do (e.g. lab doing a measurement, library doing homework, etc.)
  • @computer-internet/nointernet: Are you really on a plane this much? Please. Anywhere other than a plane and you have internet. If you don't, and you need it, you may want to switch schools/jobs.
  • @phone: Don't even start. I haven't met one student that needs this list.
  • @agenda-Dr. Phil: Compared to the three above, this has slightly more use, but I still don't think it's necessary nor practical. I used to keep this list in my "central" location for all my lists for my when I saw my adviser next and I never used it. Chances are, there are fewer than 2 or 3 people in your life whose time is so valuable that you need to make a list like this for when you're with them. But more importantly, important things to bring up with people, like research collaborators in a meeting can be made impromptu in preparation for a meeting, stored as general questions in a lab notebook, or listed in a questions slide at the end of a summery-of-current-progress PowerPoint. I found research related questions for my adviser were most conveniently written into the PowerPoint slides I was showing him, or my lab notebook for that project, but not in some list management software or device. Next to my grocery list and personal next actions.
  • @home: This is a potentially useful context, but I think it's a disguised way of just separating your lists into work and personal. If you do that already you have no use for this context.
  • @email: This is useful under one and only one circumstance: if you've become so disciplined as to check your email only a few scheduled times a day, then by all means make a list of the email you need to make when it's scheduled email time. But if you have Gmail open all the time and you're still writing @email in front of tasks, an alarm should be going off inside.
  • @errands: This is by far the most useful context, but, let's be honest, this list has nothing to do with GTD or David Allen, it's a shopping list for crying out loud! It's been around for so long, everyone uses it, and if it makes you feel more productive to put an @ in front, so be it. I'll admit it, I still call this list @errands out of habit.
Do I advocate keeping all next actions on a single list? No. I think it makes total intuitive sense to list things by project. But if you have only a few tasks anyways, by all means, put them on a single list. I probably could but don't choose to because I think in terms of projects and sit down to work on one project at a time. And if I recall correctly, David Allen even mentions in the book that if you have 20-30 next actions total, you can feel free to keep them on one list.

So what do we have left? A list of important tasks for each project, perhaps separated into work and personal, and a shopping list.

End of list of reasons.

I want to close by saying that I'm not just trying to start a fight. I have sincerely found that these contexts are simply unrealistically complicated for grad students, and to tell you frankly, for most people whose main jobs and main sources of stress involve work done in an office or any other single setting.

GTD's most important principle is keeping your mind clear. If I forget to tell Nate that he still owes me 5 bucks the next time I see him, I don't stress and it doesn't stay on my mind. If I forget to buy butter when I'm at the grocery store, I don't stress and it doesn't stay on my mind. But the large project that involves simply sitting down, closing Gmail and Facebook, and getting it done, will stress me out and will stay on my mind if I spend the day ticking off all kinds of less important tasks on my list. That task should be on your list, and as I've said before, I advocate it being only one of very few other items on your list for a given day. Forget labeling tasks by context and focus on getting that big monster task done and you're on your way to real stress-free productivity.

Related posts:
Does your system work when you have the flu?
Priorities and Getting Things Done


Paul said...

Totally agree with your post. I have a high-flying(ish) job, travel regularly, have a trillion projects going simultaneously, also run a photography business, and I still only ever use @home, @office, @errands.

If I'm @plane I just sit back and watch the movies!

I'm a todoist and my biggest problem is getting digressed/ procrastinating, so I loved your suggestion for a notecard for the day. I must give it try!

Bdizzy said...

Thanks paul, it's reassuring that to hear that I'm not just out of my mind. In fact, your situation seems to suggest I didn't even need the caveat.

Anonymous said...

Well I've just found this post coming up to three years after you made it after searching google for anyone else who follows GTD principles but who does NOT use contexts. I've been using GTD for years and it's been fantastic but my context lists have gotten simpler and simpler to the point where they are really just topics describing the general area of relevance. Home, Work, Car, Hosting, Finance and a couple of involved projects, and that's it. So I don't even use contexts now, I just tag stuff with these labels, and I have a calendar set up for each label to contain dated actions. It's much cleaner and less stressful and I bet that's the case for 99% plus of the people using it.