GTD Contexts: How To Identify Them

One of the key factors for a good GTD implementation is the context management. There are many key factors, I agree, but context management is one of them. As you may already know, one of the basic concepts of GTD is to spread your actions over all the contexts you are acting in. You are not doing work in an absolute world, an absolute time and an absolute space, but instead you are acting in some very clearly separated areas, called contexts: @Home, @Work, @Computer. You can tag your action with the required context at the processing stage, and when you are in a specific context list only the tagged action on that context. Focus and preserve energy.

If you have read the David Allen’s GTD book, you remember that there was a default set of contexts: @Computer, @Work, @Home. The @Computer context was so present for the sake of the presentation, maybe, for readablity, etc. This might be one of the reasons GTD was such a hype (and still is) in the techie / webbie world. But in real life there are zillions of contexts in which one can act, not only their computers. Contexts in which you are actually doing your next actions.

Having a proper implementation of your context list, regardless of your technical skills, is one of the secrets of mastering the fine GTD art. You can – and, according to David Allen, you should – act with a “mind like water” regardless of your computer expertise. There are tons of paper-only implementations of GTD out there, and just because they are not based on our beloved computer, we should not reject them.

So, what are your contexts? How can you have a flexible enough context list, without compromising your GTD implementation? How can you properly identify your contexts, without taking into account every time your @Computer context?

Being a GTD-er for more than one year, I’ve used a number of context implementations. Each time I changed my GTD software I changed them. And each time I felt that I was making a leap forward. But in the last few months, since I started to move all my GTD implementation to my iPhone – based on, but not limited to the ideas presented in the iPhone GTD blog post – I found out that my contexts are in reality just a few specific places where I actually do stuff.

I made an exercise for a few days, and tried to identify all my GTD contexts. Not a very complicated experiment, after all, GTD is meant to simplify our lives, and here are three main criteria for doing this operation.

1. Frequency

OK, how often are you in that context? How often are you doing stuff in that context? The rule of thumb is that needs to be a daily place for you. Sometimes you will use places with a lower frequency, but perhaps only for special occasions, like traveling, taking a course, or just holiday. Identifying your contexts based on the usage frequency will give you something like @Work, @Home, @Computer. Simply enough. But still, not enough.

2. Importance

There will also be an importance you will assign to a specific context, regardless of its usage frequency. For an accountant, @Bank context could be more important than @Office context, because you will need much more focus when you are talking directly with your account officer. For a salesman person, @Phone context could be more important that @Office context, since he’s using much of his energy trying to convince people by phone to buy products. So, try to identify not only the frequency of your activities, but their overall importance, that would be an important step in the context identification process.

3. Tool accessibility

You can have contexts in which you are actually doing work, but you don’t have access to the tools you are using in your GTD implementation. For instance, @Car, when you are on the move. You don’t have your laptop (@Computer) available, or your file folder (@Office), but you have to answer important calls, or make appointments, etc. (Using a iPhone as a GTD tool is one way to circumvent this problem. And this is why I came up with a context like @Car, where I actually read email, make phone calls, or even micro-web interactions like updating my Facebook account (feel free to follow me, by the way, since we are talking about that 🙂 ). I do not do this, however, when the car is moving, that I can assure, nor do I advise anybody to do it, let’s be clear on that, right!) One example of a context in which you don’t have access to your GTD tools (presuming you are NOT using an iPhone for this) might be @Holiday context, a very important one, if you ask me.

Well, this is it, only 3 criteria to use, but, at least for me, great results. I came up with a much smaller, yet flexible list of contexts. Which, by the way, looks like this:

  • @work
  • @home
  • @car
  • @shopping
One big thing to note is that I eliminated completely the Online / Offline distinction. I can do both types of activities in one of the above contexts.

What do you think that are the advantages of having a slimmer context list, by the way?

10 thoughts on “GTD Contexts: How To Identify Them”

  1. Pingback: GTD: выбор контекстов работы « Первые шаги к Успеху!
  2. Well, I also went through a similar journey and came to the complete opposite result (for now). I really like to have a lot of contexts and I love to keep it changing in an agile way.
    E.g. it comes in handy to have a context for each person I have contact with. This creates a list of agendas on the fly without any effort.

  3. I went through a similar journey with my contexts from a very long and specific list to fewer entries and ended up with a shorter list than before. Now I use @work, @home, @internet (yes, still the distinction), @shopping and that’s it basically.
    .-= Chris´s last blog ..Ein kühler Sommerabend – Santana im Volkspark Mainz =-.

  4. Pingback: ToolBlog » Wie Sie Ihre @Kontexte herausfinden
  5. Great post, especially since I have seen people with an endless number of contexts. Many have a context for every single application they use like “@photoshop”. This to me is counterproductive per se, since you’ll be going mad assigning all your tasks to all you contexts and managing the contexts themselves. However, I can not do with out @online and @offline since there are very often times I do have my notebook with me, but don’t have online access, so I need to have a clear list of tasks I can do during that time. But, to your post’s point, this happens rather frequent to me and hence I like the methodology to determine contexts you propose.
    .-= Sven Fechner´s last blog ..10 ways to bring clarity to your tasks and projects =-.

  6. Pingback: Productivity, Motivation, and Personal Development Links – 12th July 2009 - DIGTD - Making You More Productive
  7. Pingback: Bookmarks about Gtd

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