David Allen on why sorting your lists by contexts even matters

There is never a moment at which you could do everything you’ve decided to to, simply because most of those actions require a specific tool or location. Context is also the first criterion that limits your options and keeps you from being reminded of things you simply can’t do.

If you’re like me, and find it useful to track of all things to talk to your spouse about, stuff to pick up at the store, and emails you need to compose. It’s a lot easier to simply turn to a list that already has things to do sorted by their context, where you can see your eight calls in one click glance.- David Allen

Some suggested contexts to get started (p.144 of Getting Things Done):

  • Agendas
  • Anywhere
  • Calls
  • Computer
  • Errands
  • Home
  • Office
  • Waiting For
  • and lists for Projects and Someday Maybe

For more detail on setting up contexts, check out the GTD Setup Guides.

Join the Conversation


  1. My GTD system is paper-based other than my calendar. Trick I might have picked up from GTD coaches over time: my “Calls” list has contact+contact telephone number in all cases, even if that number is readily available.

  2. One thing I have learned is that starting with too many contexts is a bad approach because you grow numb to the contexts you don’t use very often– so in contrast to the advice above I’d suggest starting with a single Next Action list and then breaking out by context where appropriate.

    1. Simply…what he said. I personally work backward from desired Goal, detailed tasks to achieve goal, then I have things sorted as to where they fit my life overall – Personal, Podcast, Mind & Body, etc. That’s working so far and I’ve been tweaking during the pandemic self-isolation so I’ll come out of this more organized than ever before.

  3. I think its important (as always) not to over-structure. I use omnifocus, and it has posibilites to sub-contexts.

    I used them some time but came back to simple contexts, because it took me too much thought where should I put it, like David I am too lazy 🙂

    Seriously it should be simple to sort your list, so 10-20 contexts should be max…

  4. I agree with Cory. I work as a programmer and I find it really hard to come up with other contexts for work than @computer. I just keep a next actions list too and maybe an errands one.

  5. Cory & Camilla–

    In case this helps, I’ve done loads of GTD seminars for engineering groups and I suggested they looked at splitting contexts by the tools they use or mode they are. For example, many of them would say that doing email was an entirely different mode than coding. So their lists would be split by @email and @Coding or @[name of software they use to code].

    I have Computer (my PC at work) and Computer-Personal (my Mac at home). I also have a computer context that’s just for posting content to GTD Connect called To Post. It requires the computer, but it’s a specific thing to do on the computer.


  6. Hi Kelly,

    I like the idea of splitting contexts between work and home, particularly when work PCs are not accessible at home for whatever reason. I also have a work mobile and personal mobile, work email and personal email.

    Q: Would you recommend splitting contexts in this fashion as well?

  7. I agree with Cory about minimizing your contexts. Use as many as you need but as few as you can. David’s default list is a good starting point for most people.

    At first I had overcategorized and created an unworkable system. I decided to go back to the default list. Over time I added only one specialized category: @Home-Computer. I used to keep these actions on my @Home list, but got tired of hunting for them among actvities like “Clean toilets”.

  8. I’ve learned by implementing GTD myself, and by coaching others, it really depends what works/feels best for you. If you only have ~20 active tasks (as my customer services peope), 1 list will work. As I’m travelling a lot, have private actions in my system as well, and >100 open actions the above works for me. My marketing person likes to work on specific topics and finish all action from that list, so she has a category ‘@tradeshows.

    Kelly is right. as few as you need.

  9. Hi All, I am hoping you can help me with an issue I find confusing:
    Is the @context an email folder to file the actual email itself, or a ‘to-do’/next- actions list saved on another program (perhaps with links to the original email,in case the original reference material is needed)?
    If the @context is a folder of emails, once the task is completed what happens next? It goes into archive?
    Many thanks,

  10. @LBB : contexts are used to separate your different actions into reasonable chunks. I would not advise you use those contexts for you mail, simply because mail is just something that carries information you have to decide on. When you get email that requires an action, write down the action required in your tasks list, and archive your mail.

    If you want to be able to go back to the mail, then you can either print it and put in the folder corresponding to your project, or keep a digital copy (for example by sending your mail directly to your Evernote account, and then giving it the tag corresponding to the project folder you want that mail to be in).

    Hope this helps (your feedback would be nice).

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