It's All About YOUR Contexts

This post first appeared on my Medium blog 

Every time I re-read the Getting Things Done book, I am reminded that a lot of the stress we experience with our work is because we rely too heavily on setting dates for our tasks. If we spent less time trying to fit tasks into specified dates, and more time learning to truly trust our systems, we would probably discover a whole new level of stress-free living.

A lot of our tasks are not really time specific, but rather ‘I’d like to get done on a specific day’ tasks. When we add too many of these ‘I’d like to get done’ tasks to our daily lists, we begin to add overwhelm into our systems, and once we disappear over the cliff of overwhelm we quickly stop getting the best out of our GTD systems.

One of the core parts of GTD is that lists should be divided into tools, places and people. What this means is your task lists should be determined by the tool, place or person you need to complete the task. For example, for me to write this blog post, I need a tool that will enable me to write. That means either my iPad or computer. To discuss this autumn’s holiday with my wife, I clearly need to be communicating with my wife. And for me to do the grocery shopping, I need to be at the supermarket. It’s no good having on my daily list a task that says “write Medium blog post” when I will not be near my iPad or computer all day. Having that on my list of things to do on a day when I am out of the office hiking in the beautiful mountains surrounding Seoul would just cause me stress. Writing the blog post would be on my mind all day, when I should be relaxed and stress free enjoying the mountain fresh air.

Likewise having a task such as; ‘talk to Peter about the script for new documentary’ on your daily list would be silly if you were not going to be in a position to talk to Peter on that specific day. It would be better to have a list with the title “Peter” and then whenever you are with Peter, or talking to him on the phone, you can open that list and see everything you need to talk to him about. Of course, if talking to Peter is time specific and you must talk to him on a particular day, then it would be fine to add the task to a daily specific list. In the world of GTD, that task would go on your calendar. If you have no specific time in mind, it would go on your calendar as a task for that day. Otherwise if there is no particular date, it would just go on your list of calls.

And that’s the thing with GTD. We often begin to add dates and times to tasks when really they do not need dates and times. The whole point of GTD is to take the stress out of daily life and to allow you to get on with the things you have chosen to get on with and to “feel comfortable not doing what you are not doing”. Adding times to things that do not really need times and dates is just going to add unnecessary stress to your day and will contribute to you feeling a sense of overwhelm when you look at your daily list.

To get this right, you need to make sure your contexts (lists) are a true reflection of your working style and not someone else’s. If you work in an office all day, then your list of contexts could be quite small. If, like me, you work remotely and can work in any environment, then you may have a longer list of contexts. But it’s a list of contexts that must reflect your life. The GTD book makes a number of suggestions to get you started. These are:

  • Agendas
  • Anywhere
  • Calls
  • Computer
  • Errands
  • Home
  • Office
  • Waiting For

But you will most likely need to adapt these to better suit your way of working, your lifestyle and tools. As an example, I have a context called “iPad” which essentially means writing as I do most of my writing on my iPad. I also have a separate context for my laptop computer because I prefer doing design work on my laptop so tasks that are on my laptop list usually means design work.

Alternatively, you could create a list of contexts related to the type of work you are doing. The advantage of this type of list is you can go to that list when you are in the mood to do a particular type of work. For example if you had a list for design work, “Design”, and you felt like designing something, then you could open up that list and get started. Of course you do need to have the right tools with you, but it would work, because you can see what tools you have with you before looking at the list.

Whichever way you set up your lists of contexts, you do need to make sure they fit your lifestyle and not someone else’s. You have to decide your own lists so they fit naturally to the way you work. Too often people seek out how other people set up their lists and copy them. This is never likely to work well because someone else’s style of working is unlikely to fit your style of working. If you do get your contexts right, you would not need to keep looking at other people’s lists. If you do find yourself searching for other people’s lists, it probably means you have not got a natural system for you. just take some time out and think carefully how you work, with what tools, with whom and where and create you own list of contexts that fit naturally into the way you work.

When I first began using GTD, I always thought my projects list was the most important part. Gradually I came to understand that trusting my system of next actions lists was the key part. As I began to have more trust in my system, and my contexts developed to naturally fit the way I worked, these lists became the life blood of my productivity system. Now, nearly seven years later, I have a system I trust, a system that naturally tells me what to work on and a system that does not let me down. That, is the art of stress free productivity.