Contexts are a powerful, important but also controversial part of the Getting Things Done® methodology. They are controversial because many people struggle with them and hence question their value. For many years I battled with the right setup for Contexts as well. They seemed to just not fit my way of working until I decided to take a complete fresh approach to the idea that certain Actions can only be done under certain circumstances and this filter consequently makes the old treaded prioritisation (Prio A1++) irrelevant. The concept I came up with now works perfect for me and has been adopted by many others, whether they use OmniFocus, another todo management software, plain text files or pen and paper.

If you are interested in the implementation of the original GTD® Context concept consider reading "Defining and Maintaining Contexts in OmniFocus"

Evolution does not stop (also not for GTD)

When David Allen envisioned the GTD® system the economy was in the transition from the industrial age to the so called 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 leverages 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 computer technology, internet connectivity and online collaboration tools. In his original book “Getting Things Done®”, published in 2002 (!), David Allen used four criteria for selecting the action you should work on next:

  1. Context — availability of tools like phone, computer, internet connection, office)
  2. Time — time you have at hand, e.g. before the next meeting starts
  3. Energy — the level of attention you can devote to the task
  4. Priority — if you still need to choose between tasks which one is most important

This all made perfect sense in an age where the tools you used to get the job done were not 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 to you: A 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 bank transactions. Most of the time we also either carry a laptop or a tablet computer with us which provide even more tools and possibilities. With LTE 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, Slack and other tools allow us to communicate or (video) conference with the people we work with while Basecamp, 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 brick and mortar environments as you still cannot paint the kids' room from your iPhone.

At the "OmniFocus Setup" event 2013 in San Francisco I had the opportunity to speak about my "Fresh Take on Contexts"

Time & Attention are the new Limitations

As a consequence listing our Actions by Contexts that define the environment we are in or the tools available to us seems no longer appropriate. We are not 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 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 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 flawless. I have retained some traditional Contexts as well, which are either describing a physical location like "Home" (paint the kids' room!), "Office" (post the expense receipts!) or "Errands" (buy some Speedos!) or relate to "People" (Agendas/Waiting Fors). But that is really all which is left from the original concept.

Working with the new Contexts

fresh-contextsThings 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 time.

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 into “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.

If you enjoyed this article about "A Fresh Take on Contexts" and found it valuable, please consider supporting SimplicityBliss and my writing. Thank you.

"Calls" and "Routines" are slotted in as and when they fit, however some core routines are scheduled such as my sacred Weekly Review on a Saturday. When I am really low on energy and start staring at my screen, I take on things from the “Brain Dead” Context. That’s my take on GTD® Contexts in the knowledge worker age.


Thanks to Nathan Lucy the "Fresh Contexts" haven even been charted on Time & Attention axes.

Whether you use OmniFocus or another application, give these Contexts a spin for 30 days and see if they stick.