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How important is organizing NA by context?

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  • How important is organizing NA by context?

    I'd like some help with whether to organize next actions by context. I'm fighting this suggestion and I'm not sure whether I'm resisting something that would help me or whether it's a part of the GTD system that just doesn't work for me. On the pro side of organizing by context, I understand the idea that grouping similar NAs (e.g., phone calls) makes it easier to scan them when one is in that context (e.g, by a phone).

    On the con side I'm worried about mixing actions that are in discrete categories. Before I explain this, let me give some background. I'm a part-time psychologist in private practice and a part-time stay-at-home mom. My work as a therapist is done in many contexts. Although the meat of it is seeing clients in my office, I also complete a lot of paperwork and notes at home, make phone calls at home or at the office, and attend a variety of meetings to improve my work or build my practice (e.g, peer supervision, my own therapy, a reading group, workshops, conferences, and meetings with potential referral sources). Currently, my NAs are organized mostly by content as opposed to location completed. They are personal (self/family, other relationships, finances, home, and errands) and work-related (client-related, professional development, practice-building).

    If I switch to a context organization, aren't tasks more likely to get lost? What if I miss making an important phone call to a client or to my daughter's daycare because it's lost in a long list of less pressing calls? That seems especially likely because so much of my work and personal life takes place at home when my daughter is sleeping. During that precious work time, wouldn't I have too many contexts (on the phone, on the computer, at home, at anywhere) from which to choose? That's more than half of my NA list! Currently, any task that's associated with clients or with my daughter naturally takes precedence for me.

    And what about identifying projects? When I considered self/family this week, I recorded the following next actions: email a friend to borrow yoga dvd, email a neighbor and parent of older children for feedback on local preschools, take my daughter to the butterfly exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, call doctor's office to schedule her next pediatric check-up, and discuss Christmas travel plans with my husband. I don't believe I would have captured all these if I was just looking at a list of contexts like phone, computer, home, office, errands, and anywhere.

    Have any of you adopted GTD without organizing by context? Does anyone feel strongly that this step is important? Have you organized by context and found that it helped you in a way you didn't anticipate? I was very impressed with the previous thread on procrastination, and I wonder whether my reluctance to take this step in GTD is related to my fear that I won't review my list frequently enough or that I'll fail to complete important tasks.

    Thanks for any feedback or advice.


  • #2
    You hit on an important point at the end of your thread. The weekly review is where you tie it all together. (Some people do mini-reviews more frequently). Without the weekly review, it is entirely possible to let something slip through the cracks - in fact it's almost guaranteed.

    Thinking about undoable N/A's when you are not in the context to actually do something about them is pointless. The purpose of organizing N/A's by context is to keep your mind free to do when you can actually do - otherwise why are you allowing something to waste time & psychic energy occupying your mind? Organizing your N/A's by context is the most effective way to gain tangible efficiencies from the time you spent collecting, organizing, defining a successful project outcome, and determining each N/A.

    Personally, I can't envision bothering to determine N/A's without putting them in their context bucket. Otherwise I might find myself thinking I could somehow email a friend about a yoga class while I was looking at a butterfly exhibit at the zoo. My mind somehow doesn't understand that this can't be done, so it needs some trusted system to help it get organized.
    Last edited by spectecGTD; 08-09-2005, 09:15 PM.


    • #3
      Use the 'contexts' that work for you...

      I too had issues similar to yours. I use a laptop as my prime & only computer, and do a lot of work from home and from client locations. So many of the context categories that other people seem to use (@work,@pc) didn't really work for me.

      The breakthrough for me occurred when I started modifying the categories to suit my situation.

      Like you, I have client related activities that should take priority over other project-related or administrative activities. So for example, I have @Call$$Client for client-related, business development activities. When I scan my context list I check this category as a priority.

      I use an @office context for tasks that require me to be 'in the building' (where my files are stored).

      I do that same thing with appointments (I use a Palm Treo 600 & datebk5, which uses different categories for appointments & for to-do tasks).

      I use a Client$Meeting category vs. StaffDev Meeting or generic meeting.

      It may seem like too many categories -- but it works for me, and so, there's my advice to you ... forget the specific categories that other use in their GTD systems; prune the ones that don't make sense to you (@Pc, @desk, @work, whatever), and add some that are helpful for you (ie. @CHILDRelated!).

      In the situation you describe, you might want to flag client-related tasks separately from child-related ones, separate from everything else ... do what works for your circumstances.



      • #4
        That's some good advice. Often, the defaut categories don't apply across the board to all of us. I'm trying to sort out specific ones for myself. While I was setting up my system, I created @home and @home computer. They are actually two different things. I use Log Me In, which enables me to log in to my computer remotely, so I don't have to be at home to do an @home computer task. I also have a category called @anywhere, but I'm thinking it may be unnessessary because these are the kinds of tasks I would either do on my Pocket PC or on my home computer, either sitting there or logged in remotely.

        I have a few more crossed wires. With a one year old and another child due tomorrow, I often don't have time at home to take care of a lot of things, but I do have a job where I'm able to carve out time for personal things, like logging on to my computer. I will often take my "in box" from home and sort it out at work. I also catch up on some of my periodicals at work as well. These are techinically things that I would do at home, but the context I get them done in is at work.

        Ain't it great being a knowledge worker with few clearly defined boundaries?


        • #5
          @context lists are for filtering out.

          For me @contexts are for filtering out the Next Actions that are not doable in current situation. You cannot call somebody when you are not in @call context.


          • #6
            A lot of good advice in this thread. If you find that you have several contexts that can all be active when you are at home, try consolidating them all into one context (@home). Maybe you are just trying to implement too many. For a lot of people, having just 2 or 3 contexts may be all that are needed. One for home, one for the office and one for errands. The trick is recognizing that the system is flexibe and figuring out what makes the most sense for you. And as mentioned, the contexts do not have to be physical locations, but could be time slots, topics, energy levels or states of mind. It should be based on how you work and how you think.

            For example, for me, having an @calls context doesn't make sense because I have phones in my home, in my office and one on my belt. There is hardly ever a time or place where I could not make a call. I lump my calls in with my home or work contexts, depending on when/where I plan to make the call.

            If you are looking at your context list and you have the nagging feeling that you are overlooking an important next action from another list, then the system is not working for you. The whole point is to keep stuff like that off of your mind. So either change or eliminate your contexts so that you have confidence in your system.


            • #7
              As others have pointed out, it's pointless to worry about phone calls when you don't have access to a phone. Sorting by context hides activities that you can't do, so you can focus on doing the ones that you can.

              And, as others have pointed out, everyone will have a slightly different list of contexts. Use the ones that work for you, ignore the ones that don't.

              The other thing to remember is that no one ever said you had to *only* sort by context. Use an organizer that allows multiple categories and you can also sort by project (or client name), by focus area (professional, family, household maintenance), or whatever criteria make sense.

              Something else to think about is that, if you have such a long list of phone calls that the important ones are likely to get lost, maybe you need to trim the list. Either dedicate an hour or two to just blasting through them all, or just drop (or move to Someday/Maybe) the ones that don't matter to you. Or maybe the nature of your life is that you spend a lot of time on the phone, and so need to block out regular time to keep your call list under control. And the same with other contexts. If your list is longer than you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time, make a conscious decision about what not to do.



              • #8
                Seperate Home and Work systems

                I found similar problems with mixing personal and work contexts and categories. I don't want to go through a whole list of personal calls (ring Fred and arrange to go to pub) with critical work calls for instance. Also if you have a seperate NA-context for each project, and a project is anything with more than one or two steps you soon have a bewildering number of contexts and projects.
                I have found the best way round it is to have a GTD Work system based on Outlook, MindManager ( and Blackberry; and a seperate Home GTD system based on the Hipster PDA ( idea. Perhaps this is the "wrong" thing to do as regards GTD but I find it the best way to organise.


                • #9

                  This thread is the biggest epiphany for me since originally reading GTD. Just yesterday, in utter frustration from several nights of poor sleep (weather-related), I separated my current priorities as Mindful, Semi-Mindless, and Mindless. Worked through them as my energy dropped. Made for a much more productive day! Contexts as "state of mind" REALLY address some major procrastination issues. I guess Julie Morgenstern discusses this, too. Thanks for all the good stuff.

                  Please don't wonder why I'm being paid good money to do "Mindless" work. A portion of my work involves folding, stuffing, stapling, etc.


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by bmd
                    I separated my current priorities as Mindful, Semi-Mindless, and Mindless. Worked through them as my energy dropped. Made for a much more productive day! Contexts as "state of mind" REALLY address some major procrastination issues.
                    These contexts would be helpful for someone with a chronic or acute illness, too.


                    • #11
                      Great question, and some really interesting answers. I definitely agree that contexts as envisioned in the GTD book don't work for everyone. I saw from the start that for my job it would be ridiculous to make all the phone calls associated with several projects, then do all the web research, then the writing. Each project has to develop more organically than that.

                      It's also question of technology, I think. If you use an electronic organizer, perhaps what you need is a system that allows you to switch very easily between NAs organised by context and NAs organised by project/life area. If, like me, you use paper, you have to make a choice. I organise NAs by project, but I sometimes make a note a context too, to make it easier to batch tasks when I'm in the mood:

                      [renewpassport] get new passport photos taken @ERRANDS

                      where "[renewpassport]" is the project, "get new passport photos taken" is the NA, and @ERRANDS is the context. It's not watertight; sometimes the contexts are improvised. That's because for me, unlike for example spectecGTD above, the key relaxation from GTD comes from knowing I've got the stray NAs written down and easily accessible, not from knowing that I have them sorted by context. I can see that point of view, though.


                      • #12
                        I have one general context (Tasks) and then I have specific contexts - Errands, Computer, Phone Calls, Outside (yardwork), etc. Most of my tasks fall into the Tasks context, but not so many that it is overwhelming. If something is critical, it goes on the calendar or in the tickler file. I even break out "Cleaning" tasks onto their own list simply because I only want to look at those things when I'm in the cleaning mode.

                        I also have Errands and Shopping categories - Errands are specific things I need to do (mail package at post office) and shopping is things I need to keep a look out for when I'm in town (new placemats for the dining room table). Errands are things I need to do; Shopping is things that I can do if I feel like, and even if I find an item, that doesn't necessarily mean I'll buy it.

                        In answer to your main question - is it necessary to break tasks down by context (vs roles), I would say that is the most important thing I've learned from GTD. I used to keep lists, but they weren't necessarily next actions, and they certainly weren't ordered by contexts. Now, everything on my main Tasks list can be done at home, some elsewhere as well. Errands aren't in my way on my list when I'm at home thinking about what to do next.

                        When/if you switch over to contexts instead of roles, give it a month to figure out what context lists work best for you. It will take a month of fine-tuning. I am a SAHM with an in-home business. Both personal and business tasks are on all lists because those aspects of my life are very intertwined. Business calls are on a separate list from personal calls, though. You just have to figure out what works for you. It takes a bit more thinking to figure out since you're not working in corporate America (aka the type of person the book seems to be speaking to the most), but it certainly can be done. Give it a month, and then see.


                        • #13
                          [Contexts] Keep it simple!


                          perhaps you could use the following NA lists:

                          1. Mother (Mother at private practice, at home, and elsewhere)
                          2. At private practice (Therapist and personal items at private practice)
                          3. At home (Therapist and personal items at home)
                          4. Elsewhere (Therapist and personal items somewhere else)

                          Hope this helps.

                          Last edited by Rainer Burmeister; 08-10-2005, 11:59 AM.


                          • #14
                            Avoiding burying important calls

                            Originally posted by clairenyc
                            If I switch to a context organization, aren't tasks more likely to get lost? What if I miss making an important phone call to a client or to my daughter's daycare because it's lost in a long list of less pressing calls? That seems especially likely because so much of my work and personal life takes place at home when my daughter is sleeping. During that precious work time, wouldn't I have too many contexts (on the phone, on the computer, at home, at anywhere) from which to choose? That's more than half of my NA list! Currently, any task that's associated with clients or with my daughter naturally takes precedence for me.
                            You could establish a policy of answering all client calls same day or by some number of work or calendar days. Then you could sort your calls by the date by which the call-back is required. No client calls could be lost.

                            I also agree with comments suggesting that contexts should be used creatively. If you had 10 minutes between clients that you didn't need for note-taking or review, you could make some short calls, but not ones likely to lead to long conversations. So you might want to break out short calls (@10mins) from other calls (@Phone).

                            I think the GTD context concept is a significant productivity aid. You may appreciate that some ADDers use categories that reflect the intensity of focus required to complete a task.


                            • #15
                              Contexts + another parameter...

                              Wow - great thread so far - keep going!

                              The issue of having too many items in a general-context list such as @Calls, @Home, @Email, etc. can be a major problem in implementing GTD when you have multiple work locations, multiple life roles, etc.

                              That being said, the physical contexts are critical distinctions to make as part of the up-front "pre-filter" of the inventory of available (and current if you do the weekly review!) next actions.

                              I've found it very useful to add at least one (and possibly two) additional parameters to each next action, as I create them (yes, I pay the 2-second time penalty each time, but it's worth it):

                              1) I assign a rough priority (in Outlook, high/medium/low) to each next action; and

                              2) I assign a category to each next action - using the Project data field for projects, goals, agendas, etc. with a distinctive description, such as @Role:Personal:Husband; @Agenda:Board Meeting, Project:Personal:Cottage:Refinish Bedroom Floor, etc.

                              Now I set views in Outlook and in my Palm to display the @Calls context list by priority, so I get that immediately available to me as a rough input to that moment-to-moment decision as to what to tackle next on this list. As the original thread author notes, this is where some high priority calls regarding children, or major clients can be made to appear a little higher on the list without being overbearing.

                              If the context list gets truly huge (like my @Emails list), I fire up outlook and look at a view of this context list grouped by project (as I define this field in item 2 above) - allowing me to tackle a specific area of focus - so if I'm working on issues related to the Board of Directors of my start-up company, my mind is already focused on these types of issues, allowing me to knock off a group of emails in short order.

                              If you're really, really, keen and you use Outlook, you can also create custom views that combine contexts - when I'm at my home office, I can display @Calls, @Emails, @Home:Office, and other such contexts in a single, combined list, grouped by either priotity or context, allowing me another tool to make the right (and critical!) choice of next action.

                              Hey, it works for me...