As my Twitter followers may know, I have been experimenting with a complete new context setup in OmniFocus in the last two to three weeks. Since I am pretty pleased with the result of this fresh approach I thought I share the details and reasons for it. Actually, whether you use OmniFocus, any other GTD tool or just paper lists, this might be relevant for you.
Evolution doesn’t stop (also not for GTD)
When David Allen envisioned the GTD system the economy was in the transition from the traditional industry age to the information age. By now many of the GTD aficionados are what is broadly defined as knowledge workers. Technology has significantly evolved in the last years and any productivity system that utilisies technology needs to take this into account and evolve as well. Particular the contexts in which we work have changed due to the ubiquitous availability of technology, internet connectivity and online collaboration tools. In his original book “Getting Things Done” David Allen used four criteria for selecting the action you should work on next:
- Context (availability of tools like phone, computer, internet connection, office)
- Time (time you have at hand, e.g. before the next meeting starts)
- Energy (the level of attention you can devote to the task)
- Priority (if you still need to chose between tasks which one is most important)
This all makes perfectly sense in an age where the tools you use to get the job done aren’t always available. But in the last decade this has dramatically change, especially for knowledge workers.
Contexts became ubiquitous
Today, where ever you are, most of your tools are always available. Your smartphone travels with you and allows you not only to do phone calls, but read and respond to email, browse the web, access collaboration and corporate tools and do your banking. Most of the time we also either carry a laptop or a tablet computer with us, which provides even more tools and possibilities. And with 3G networks and WiFi hotspots being available at nearly every street corner, internet connectivity has long moved away from the static office or home environment. Actually, for many of us “office” has become an optional place to be at for work. FaceTime, Skype and other tools allows us to (video) conference with the people we work with and DropBox, SharePoint and other platforms allows us to share documents and do other great things in a group. Without a doubt some tasks remain tight to a brick and mortar environments as you still can’t mow the lawn from your iPhone.
Time & attention are the new limitations
As a consequence listing our tasks by contexts that define the environment we are in or the tools available to us seems no longer appropriate. We aren’t restricted by availability anymore, we are restricted by the choices we make. You can always email, but you chose not to. Having phone calls can happen anytime and anyplace, but it’s your choice to ring that difficult co-worker. The decisions we make today in terms of the next action we engage in is determine by time and attention available. Whereby attention is a combination of energy and priority. Priorities are either imposed on us, but more often they are also a choice we make: “What is important to me?”
New contexts to be adopted
Based on this reasoning and the day-to-day experience we have, it seems no longer the best setup to have contexts such as email, computer, web and so forth. It is time to find a new way to organise tasks, a way that reflects our most precious resources: time & attention. Here are the new context choices I have made and which work nicely for me:
- Short Dashes — Everything that is done in a very short amount of time (typically 5-10 minutes). This includes looking things up, writing an email (something I kept separate for some time during my experiment, but came to realised that emails are mostly short dashes as well), setting up a meeting, doing your bank business or buy a new app.
- Brain Dead — Whenever I am low on energy, which happens at least once a day, I need tasks that I can do without a great deal of thinking such as submitting my time card, file and tag documents, fill-out some stupid Excel sheet or upload the pictures from the last weekend trip.
- Routines — Things that keep me and my system going and most importantly protect sanity. Tasks like my Weekly Review require a special sort of time and attention to get properly engaged with.
- Full Focus — That’s the big one, the “quality and uninterrupted time” and “high energy” context. This is where tasks sit that really define the work that I am doing. Be it writing a proposal, a blog post or a long email, analysing a complex Excel, intense research or designing a PowerPoint presentation or a website. I at least set aside 90 minutes per day to just work on one or two actions in this context and I basically go “offline” during that time.
- Thinking — We all have these projects that we need to think through, whether you do mind mapping or just sit on a bench and watch nature, there is again a special kind of time and attention you need to have and devote to think things through.
- Calls — I kept this one separate although you could think this may fall in to “Short Dashes” as well. (Video) calls in the sense of one-on-one conversations however are quality interactions since they are still the next best thing to a physical meeting. I want to make sure I devote the right time and attention to them as the people I interact with deserve nothing less than this.
- Hanging around — That’s when you have quite some time, but relative low energy levels. I find myself in more of a “consumption”-mode during this state and prefer watching some educational videos, read some articles or catch-up on a recorded WebEx call. Very often I look at this context in the evening, surfing the sofa with my iPad.
These seven contexts contain 80% of my tasks now and they work perfectly fine for me. I have retained some traditional contexts as well, which are either describing a physical location like home (mow the lawn!), office (pick up mail from mail room!) or errands (buy paint for the kitchen!) or relate to people (agendas/waiting fors). But that’s it really.
Working with the new contexts
Things became far more natural for me using these new contexts and that is simply for the fact that I typically have everything I need (phone, laptop/iPad and internet connection) with me in 90% of the cases. What really varies is the time and attention I have at a given point in time. If I have 20 minutes before my next conference call start I typically do two or three tasks from my “Short Dashes”. If I am in “the zone” and have great energy and uninterrupted time, which I typically schedule, I dive in to “Full Focus” tasks. With just 30 minutes but good energy I engage on “Thinking” tasks and when phasing out of the work day I typically start “Hanging Around” a bit. Calls and Routines are slotted in as and when they fit, however some core routines are scheduled such as my Weekly Review on a Friday. When I am really low on energy and start starring at my screen, I take on things from the “Brain Dead” context. That’s my take on GTD contexts in the knowledge worker age and I am curious what creative context setups you have developed for yourself. Share them in the comments, please.