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  • Questions about context

    I have been "lurking" here on the board for a number of months now and I have just started listening to GTD Fast ... but I have one question that has been plaguing me, so I thought to post it here:

    1) I need to have an effective system to capture and organize
    2) That system is up to date
    3) I need to completely trust/believe that my system will have the information I need at the appropriate time

    How do I manage myself when I am in a "multiple context" environment?

    To elaborate: I have found that some items keep popping up as I try to clear the deck. Week after week, these few items or projects are still very much on my mind. I do not feel settled. I initially tried to go back and make sure my outcome was clearly defined. It was. I checked if my next action was indeed actionable. It was. I had gobs of support material and notes that got organized. Everything I was doing should have brought peace and gotten these things off my mind.

    I then realized that most of my stress came from worrying that I wouldn't see the reminder. I didn't trust my system! Horror! Upon further reflection, I found that I am afraid that I will "miss it" ... that I will not look at the right list. I spend the majority of my day in an environment where I always have access to a computer, phone, the internet, my files ... this is all day every day. Multiple contexts from one chair.

    So how do I get to a point where I can get the project off my mind? As I review my lists, I find myself asking "what was the NA for Project X? Which context did I put that in?" ... doesn't sound like "mind like water".

    1) Please, do not bombard me with palm/outlook/lotus/tech solutions! I am a techie person. I am aware of the multiple category possibilities and Palm do-dads to track this stuff. Simple fact: my pen and paper planner are the only tools that truly allow me to work as fats as I think. I have found this true after a few years of "trying everything". The only tech solution I have any hope in would be the Tablet PC, but the funds will not be available for that this year, so I need a mid-tech solution. Thanks!

    2) I also want to avoid the plain-vanilla/palm/tech/paper/rock & chisel debate. I know my planner works for me (BTW it's a cheap-o At-A-Glance binder with a slot for a journal/notebook in the front flap ... collection and processing in an 5.5 x 8.5 package .... i love it)

    3) I have considered altering my contexts, but have yet to brainstorm a set that relieves this fear of "missing it". I have considered Professional/Personal/Errand - too broad and my Professional and Personal life are not easily compartmentalized .... I thought about Communicate/Create/Get/Waiting ... too ... something (odd?) ....

    4) What I would really love to hear is how you have developed your contexts to be a system you can trust ... because once I trust that the system will give me the information appropriately, I am "there".

    Thanks and apologies for the long post,
    B Kracke

  • #2
    Don't worry not going to bombard you with anything

    I've seen David and Jason respond to similar questions , some in similar situations use a general context "at office " for most office based stuff (I do this myself)

    I do break my calls out separately because most of those can be made from any phone .

    David usually suggests that you separate your @computer tasks (in case the network is down you'll still have a list to work from etc. ) I don't do this, if the network is down , I need to bring it back up

    I'm starting to discover : the fewer context lists the better it works for me


    • #3
      I review all of my next actions every morning. It only takes a few minutes, and it's enough to convince me that I won't forget anything important today, even if I don't look at any of my lists for the rest of the day.

      I don't know whether this suggestion will help you or not, but it served me well.


      • #4

        I've found that the balance that must be struck is between having too many context lists and having too many items in a single context to make the list meaningful. If you only have 20-25 next actions (total, all contexts), you might not need context lists: you can probably quickly scan the list and pick something to do. But if you have over 200 next actions, it's difficult to scan the list (regardless of how it's kept) and select what to do next. In deciding what to do next, D.Allen has identified the four steps that people naturally (or should, to stay calm) go through: Context, Time available, Energy available, and Priority. By breaking out NAs into contexts, you've effeciently taken care of the first step every time.

        But yes, this only works if your contexts accurately mimic your actual physical contexts. I also spend 95% of my work time in my chair, at my desk, in my office, with a computer and phone at hand. I used to have context lists for Computer, Internet, Email, Calls, and Work, (and others), the thinking being that I'd decide what tool to use, rather than what physical context I'm in. But that doesn't quite help me decide what to do, because I'm usually in all of those contexts while I'm at work.

        I've since eliminated most of them and am now down to just Agendas, Anywhere, Calls, Errands, Home, Waiting For, and Work. All of my work-related calls, emails, net research activities, etc. go on my Work list. Personal calls go on calls, because they're generally shorter, don't require me to have support material with me, etc. I generally have from 25 to 50 on my Work list (I try to be ruthless with someday/maybes). When I sit at my desk, I look at that list and generally can make a decision amont those 25-50 quickly by determining how much time and energy I have, and then prioritizing what's left.

        If my life gets to the point where I have 100 items on my Work list, I might try to break work actions up into the next category: Time. Maybe 2 lists: Work<10 minutes and Work>10 minutes or something. I don't know if that would be helpful or not, but it might be better than trying to break them up by what are essentially "tools required" instead of physical contexts: email, calls, etc.

        Don't know if that helps or not. But I do trust my system now more than I did when I had 10 or more contexts. Even if my Work list (or my Home list, for that matter) gets to be pretty long, I can at least print it out to review and know that it represents all of the actions that I need to and can take while at work.


        • #5
          Allow Me To Elaborate

          Perhaps if I mentioned one or two more things that impact my contexts:

          1) I am an administrator/musician/tech guy at a church. Multiple roles & responsibilities. I love it and wouldn't change a thing. The complexity comes because there are not clean edges in my life (that I can find) to reflect in my system. Sometimes I have to make work calls after I am home. Some days I work from home. Some days I squeeze personal appointments in the middle of work. It's a "mess" ... at least it could be without GTD.

          I think it's the clean edges concept that I need to focus on ... but I do not have those edges in life. I can start or stop "working" at any time. Are there other ways people have defined their contexts? Are contexts to be physical? A mental frame of mind?

          2) I appreciate the suggestion to review lists daily, I try to follow Allen's recommendation to do that more than just daily. My lists are almost all multi-page (25+ items). This may seem like a bunch of items (150-200 items), but easily 50% of those items are non-urgent items. I get random tasks assigned to me all the time. Mini-projects of 2-3 steps. One step items. Things that need to happen, but don't need to be scheduled.

          It's the "scan" of 150 items that I am getting hung up in. Often I will find discretionary time and "feel" like making calls/opening email/etc. Is that the best choice in the moment? It seems like a "quick review" of 150 items is the only way to be certain ... and that starts feeling like "Reading Things A Lot" not "Getting Things Done"

          More fuel for the discussion fire,


          • #6
            I struggled and struggled and struggled with the exact same issue regarding my contexts. I am true to GTD in that I've not read Covey or any other "get organized" type gurus. I also usually have access to all my "stuff" whether I'm at the office or at home. I use a laptop, so that is with me in the home and the office. Phones are never a problem. Internet connection is never a problem. My context lists were just not keeping it clean for me and I was spending way too much time deciding where a next action should go.

            I finally had an "a-ha" moment after pouring over this board and using the add-ins and paper and whatever came along. It finally occured to me that the next actions I can take to move my projects forward must be listed according to my roles and/or hats I wear. Most places I have all my tools with me, so it makes more sense for me to list my next actions by the mode/role I'm performing.

            I'm the Creative Director for a company. I do not have a staff of creatives under me and must perform many of the tasks myself. It is also neccessary for me to make many managerial/executive type decisions.
            I am a single Mom with a teenage son. I'm also involved with my community/fitness/friends and have my own set of "creative projects".

            I got my context list down to the following 7 and it is finally very smooth for me now.

            @HH (head of household)
            @Community (errands, purchases, upcoming events to consider, etc)
            @Development (marketing, research tasks)
            @Creative (personal projects, anywhere tasks, etc)
            @IT (all the geek stuff)

            I wrote out my own definitions of what could appear within those lists, and that has helped keep clean hard edges for where things go. I hope this helps you. I felt very compelled to share this because it has been a huge breakthrough for me.


            • #7
              Contexts & Roles

              I have come back to the idea of using roles as a context a few times (S. Covey was my first introduction to life management concepts. I guess you do always remember your first! ) However, the thing I can not reconcile with this approach could be summed up in this simple scenario.

              My cordless mouse runs out of AA batteries at the office. I replace with the fresh ones I OF COURSE have on hand and make a note in my @TechGuy role/context to buy more. The next day I am poking aroun din my basement when my flashlight batteries die. I replace them, and note "Buy C Batteries" in my @HeadOfHouse list.

              When I am at Sam's Club/Wal-MArt/Target/CVS ... how will I ever find those two reminders? Obviously an @Errands list would help. But then that is no longer a role, is it. Additionally, the tasks could have easily been NON-ERRAND ... Where do I put the phone call I must make during businerss hours for personal reasons? Is "Call Tire Store for tire quote" @TechGuy? @DesignGuy? @HeadOfHouse?

              I find that reviewing my roles during my weekly review to be enough. But I simply do not and can not live my life on a role by role basis ... If I am at Best Buy picking up a gift for my Dad, networking equipment for my job, and a CD for me .... what role is THAT?


              • #8
                That's why I took errands off the list and called it @Community. Some people I think call it @Out & About. My list is really a mixture of roles/modes and specific place, ie; I kept @Calls and @Community as the catch all for the things when I'm out and about. Anyway, my errands list didn't do much good sitting on my laptop. My PDA is always with me, and sometimes the list of things to pick up ends up being dashed off onto a piece of paper.


                • #9
                  After about 2-1/2 weeks into implementing GTD, I'm migrating toward two lists for my "Out & About" actions. One list is "ErrandsToday" and the other is "ErrandsAnytime". Neither list is specific as to whether it's contains personal or business items - they're all just errands. The priority aspect of these two is obvious, but I still give myself the freedom to move tasks from one list to the other, depending upon where I find myself at any given time that day.

                  Seems to me that flexibility is still paramount if one is to truly make the system work in his/her personal environment. To me, the key is to just get it out of my head, distribute it into a system I trust, and then let my instincts and judgement make the final call on when, where, and how to accomplish these errands.


                  • #10
                    Here's my solution to this roles/context issue using datebk5 on my palm. My task categories are roles (so are my appointment categories). I attach an icon to each task to note the context...a phone for @calls... a shopping cart for @errands, etc. I also color-code each role. To generate my context list I use list view and filter on the context icon. This gives me a color-coded list of whatever context I selected. (Tip: use Icon Manager to drag all context icons to the first column of the icon picker so they are in the same spot and all together in a single column)

                    The advantage to this is that I can focus on office tasks only when I am at work and I can get the 'big picture' when I want to view everything. A great example is when I am out running work errands and I view only errands in that category and not see a long list of personal errands mixed in. My boss would not appreciate me doing my grocery shopping or running personal errands while on the clock. Also, my husband would not appreciate me running work errands on a Saturday when we are out and about. I can also retrieve data quickly in list view by filtering on a text string or a different icon (context) like pulling up a list of doctor visits for my kids by filtering on their category and the medical icon.

                    Datebk5 allows me to create saved views so that I can view these filters quickly or generate them easily on the run. It is highly flexible and easy to customize.

                    Another tip is to 'synchronize' the categories. Since I use the same category names in appts and tasks, I can convert items back and forth between the calendar and tasks list without losing any formatting. This is really helpful if I want to convert a phone call next action to an appointment time slot because I made the call and discovered I need to call back at a preset time. This also makes it easy to filter quickly on a category by tapping and holding on the split-screen arrow and then selecting a category. This will show only events and tasks in that category. I use this feature all the time to focus on 'office' or 'home manager' depending on where I am at the time.

                    Hope this helps.



                    • #11
                      Re: Questions about context

                      Originally posted by Krackeman
                      I then realized that most of my stress came from worrying that I wouldn't see the reminder. I didn't trust my system! Horror! Upon further reflection, I found that I am afraid that I will "miss it" ... that I will not look at the right list. I spend the majority of my day in an environment where I always have access to a computer, phone, the internet, my files ... this is all day every day. Multiple contexts from one chair.

                      So how do I get to a point where I can get the project off my mind? As I review my lists, I find myself asking "what was the NA for Project X? Which context did I put that in?" ... doesn't sound like "mind like water".
                      Are you sure this is a "context" problem? More often than not when I've had this problem, its been because I had things that I really need to remember to do buried among a bunch of other things that that could be deferred. I usually ended up moving things off my lists to someday/maybe's or onto a list of deferred items. For me, its rarely been a problem of keeping things "in context" but of keeping the immediate things right in front of me while keeping other items where they can easily be found when I have the opportunity to get to them.

                      Tom S.


                      • #12
                        I've faced the same challenge. At work, when I'm not in meetings, I have all my tools in front of me, so @computer, @calls don't help that much. It took me awhile to figure out that I needed to play with my contexts (slow learner!), but tweaking my contexts has helped a lot. I think the things to consider if you feel a need to make a change are:

                        1) do you have any contexts that are getting stagnant? Is that list turning into @never? I had an @anywhere list for things that I could do for odd moments (doctor's office wait, etc.). The problem was I kept waiting for those odd moments and they weren't happening often enough, so stuff would sit.

                        2) Are they actually helping you make better choices? At the end of the day, did they serve you well in making the best possible choice. Do you feel more overwhelmed when you read them or less

                        3) What personally causes you to need to mentally "reboot"? You want to minimize "rebooting" unless you need to make a change to get mentally refreshed. Obviously, changing physical environments (car, home, work) are big reboots. I think some people work better when working in one project for an extended period. Changing from project to project requires a lot of rebooting for them. For me it is energy level, if I don't do my high energy tasks early in the day, it can be tough to do them in the afternoon.

                        Right now, I'm playing with splitting them up between very concrete physical contexts or energy level. The concrete ones look like this.

                        @agendas - review on day of meeting - agenda items for meetings that take place at a specific time
                        @ contacts - review daily - phone, emails or conversations that didn't fit in the 2-minute (or so) rule. I'm finding it doesn't make sense to break them up because I have all the tools to do this in front of me most of the time and I often change my plan about HOW I want to do these. I keep them seperate from @office because I like to get to these right away in the morning (east coast calls, etc.)
                        @ errands - review daily -
                        @ home - try to review daily but I tend to avoid this list - It is turning into @never. realizing I need a reality check here - with 2 littles ones at home, if a NA takes more than 15 mintues, I probably need to divide up the task in smaller parts, incorporate it into a routine or negotiate with my husband to have focused time to do the task. I've been a mom for three years now, you'd think I'd have this one figured out, but like I said, I'm a slow learer. In the meantime, I need to move more things to someday/maybe and just enjoy my babies. I'd love advice on this.
                        @ projects - review weekly
                        @ projects/others - review weekly - projects that others are doing that I need to keep tabs on or waiting fors that I dont' want to review as often
                        @waiting for - review daily

                        The more "focus/energy based" lists are

                        @break - things I want to do at lunch or when kids are napping...another one that is turning into @never
                        @office - basic widgit cranking - this tends to be a long list. I try to move it along quickly
                        @plan/think - more of more of my work is becoming this as my job grows. I find I need to SCHEDULE this work - close my office door or schedule myself into a conference room. Or at least do it early in the day.

                        I also put the role/major project in front of the NA like "Home: call pediatrician, schedule well baby visit" - it was ackward at first but is automatic now and helps me work within one role if I want to.


                        • #13
                          Context Crisis

                          This was a timely thread for me, I'm having the same Context Crisis, so I've been doing a lot of tinkering with my lists. This thread contains a lot of good observations.

                          As others have mentioned, when I’m at work I’m usually sitting at my desk with all the tools. I have reduced my “work” lists to 2, @Work, which contains calls, emails, admin tasks – I sort by due date, so urgent ones are always on top. This list turns over fast. I also have a “Projects – Work” list where I keep all my work assignments, projects and desired outcomes, I scan it every morning and populate my @Work list with actions I feel appropriate.

                          About half my day is driven by impromptu tasks I response to support issues or client whims. I write these on my legal pad, since I have that in meetings and at my desk. If these are single or few step tasks, I often just work off the legal pad. At the end of the day, I review the pad and enter unfinished items. A user in this form suggested putting a post-it note on the pad at the point in which I’ve last completed my upload \ review to prevent things from rolling out of my vision. I’m confident and successful with GTD at work.

                          I’m still trying to get a grip on GTD outside of work. I’ve got to many lists and too many items on each list. My next actions are getting deeper. So I’ll add a couple of specific context questions:

                          I have an @Call (for non-work only) list but how to I track a call that must be made during business hours, or only on a weekend?

                          Any thoughts on @Errands? I have over 100 “buy new sprinkler”, “fill propane tank”, “look at USB Hard drives” type tasks. When I’m out and about, I don’t know where to start, there may be 9 things I need at a hardware store, but I may only notice 3 when I’m in a hardware store. I don’t want 5 sub-context @Errands list (@Hardware, @Department Store, @Driving Aimlessly etc…

                          This weekend I intend to convert much my hardware shopping list into a memo and put a @Hardware Store task in the task list. My fear is that some things could be done in many places, if I’m at the hardware store, I could fill my propane tank, but I’m looking at my “Around town list”. I might not see Buy Propane while I was at home, so I don’t have the tank. Having too many lists is confusing, list contexts that are too ambiguous defeats GTD.


                          • #14
                            Another view on contexts

                            I agree this is, once again, a very timely and important thread. I have also struggled on this issue on how to group my next actions. As a Covey person initially, I had things separated by my roles, but I found over time that this did not work so well due to losing the power of the focus on context. I do like the @calls, @errands type categories as they make the most sense to me. But like most people responding, I have my computer and internet setup in my office and at home, so these categories -- @computer, @internet get blurred for me. I am thinking of reducing my context categories to @work for the computer and internet activities (I really do not want to do this work at home), perhaps an @briefcase category for those work items I can bring home, or take advantage of those small snippets of time. I don't know...I don't wish to continually modify my categories as I am not getting things done!

                            Please, let's here from others as to their context categories. All of us could learn from each other, whcih is one great strength of this posting board.



                            • #15
                              I just realized I left out of of the "energy specific" contexts @numbnut. Got my inspiration from another person on this forum. It is for things that are best done when I'm feelng braindead. Love that list so I had to come back and mention it. I don't use it often, but when I do something off that list because is truly all I can do at the moment, I actually feel energized when I'm done. Mysterious.