There are tasks you can only perform depending on where you are, when you are and what tools you have available. This is one of the core Getting Things Done® principles which helps you focus on the tasks you actually can do instead of procrastinating over all the your total todo list. It is not unusual to have 500 or more Actions in your OmniFocus and worry quite a bit about when, if and how you will get to do them. But try to not worry, instead try to narrow down those tasks that are feasible given where you are, the tools, people and time available to you. You will be surprised how few Actions remain using Contexts as the natural selection criteria.
This article uses the original concept of Contexts in GTD®. Read "A Fresh Take on Contexts" for a new and different approach.
Defining and Maintaining Contexts
While Contexts are extremely useful, it is very easy to over or under engineer their actual number. Most GTD® setups have far too many, others seem to ignore Contexts altogether. The latter is fine when you are not into David Allen's methodology, but then again you should properly use a more generic task manager than OmniFocus, which is very much designed around Getting Things Done®.
There are three rules to help you define and — even more important — maintain a reasonable and useful number of Contexts.
Rule #1: Categorise your Contexts
With very few exceptions the majority of Contexts used in OmniFocus (or any other GTD® implementation) fall into three distinct categories. When sticking to these three categories you should also be able to determine exclusive definitions and thus do not fall into the "I need to assign this Action to multiple Contexts"-trap which many, mainly novice OmniFocus users do.
The three categories are:
- Places — Certain locations enable or allow you to do certain things; You can only pick up the office mail if you have access to your postbox or you can only paint the kids’ room if you are at home
- Tools — You need specific helpers at hand to complete an Action; Be it your computer, a telephone, broadband access or whatever tooling you need to do your job
- People — Following-up on something or talking about a topic is only possible if you are meeting an individual or a group of people; These are the famous "Agenda"-Contexts which provide you a list of topics to discuss with someone or to raise in a regular meeting; "Waiting For" also falls into the people category since it is mostly individuals you are waiting for, although in some occasions it might as well be companies or institutions
Looking at the standard set of Contexts, they likely all fall into these three categories, at least at the root level. Occasionally you may have some Contexts that are more "activity"-focussed, but we will cover these exceptions later.
Rule #2: Don’t go over board
It is relatively easy to end up having far too many Contexts and this where most people go numb — you could as well have no Contexts at all. While there is no best practice in terms of absolute number, there are a few key questions that can help you determine whether you need a certain Context.
- Does this Context typically carry more than two actions?
- Is this a place/tool/person that I visit/use/meet regularly?
- Is this Context exclusive or is there any overlap with others?
- Is this Context too granular? Could an Action be assigned to a more generic Context and still work? (see question one)
If you ask yourself these questions — and you can really just do it in a trial and error approach — you should be able to come up with a relative limited and fixed set of Contexts. As said earlier there is no best practice in terms of number, but in most cases the levers are typically how many people you interact with and how many places you visit on a regular basis. These two factors may leave with you with a relative small or a huge number of Contexts.
Depending on your job, the people and places categories may also make your Contexts more dynamic. If you do, for example, project based work (and many of us do, I suppose), you will have a different set of stakeholders, collaborators and potentially new places with every new project. In this case you need to revisit at the third rule on a more frequent basis.
Rule #3: Review your Contexts regularly
Reviews are the backbone of Getting Things Done® anyway, but every now and then you should also engage in a Meta Review, i.e. a review of your productivity and task management system per se. What works and what does not? You can do this every six months, some (need to) do it more frequent and some less. While this Meta Review would be a separate topic on its own, the thing to look at as a part of it is your Contexts.
You can basically use the Meta Review to ask yourself the questions listed under rule #2. Also check if Contexts which have a more temporary nature, e.g. a person you only work with on a specific project, are still relevant.
Assigning Contexts to Actions
This is a crucial part of your workflow and it’s often done the wrong way. Getting Things Done® suggests two different stages when capturing a new Action:
First "Collect" in which you should really just enter your thought or clip the email/website your are reading which, for whatever reason, has you attention. The item will then happily sit in your OmniFocus Inbox and not yet move to specific Context and Project/List.
The second phase called "Process" is actually extremely important to keep yourself sane and protected from collecting and committing to too many activities. Only when you have time to process your inbox is when you can reflect on whether something really needs action, if you are the best person to do it, whether it is a single Action or actually a entirely new Project and finally where, with whom or which tools in needs to be performed.
As for every rule there is certainly also an exception to the "Collect → Process" workflow: If you capture an Action that is related to an existing project and it is obvious as to how it needs to get done you can file it straight and bypass the Inbox.
Pre-defining Project Contexts
OmniFocus offers the possibility to pre-assign a Context to all new Actions in a specific Project. It is likely not the most frequently used feature in OmniFocus and given the diverse nature of Actions its value could be questioned as well. However, there are actually a number of cases where this pre-assignment comes in very handy, so here is how it works:
Select the Project and open the Inspector (Menu → View → Show Inspector or ⌥⌘I). In the Project section under the Type setting you will find a drop down where you can select the default Context of the Project from your existing list of Contexts. Any new Action assigned to or created in this Project will inherit this Context automatically. You can certainly change the Context for any Action manually and any Context you assign when creating or filing the Action will not be overwritten.
Here is a complete list of sample standard GTD® Contexts you can use on a day-to-day basis. Most of them are pretty static and usually get a high number of Actions assigned to. While I travel quite a bit and also get to work with a number of different individuals inside the large corporation I work for, there are typically not enough Actions for all those people and places to justify their own Context.
The first few are obvious and created fast: Home and Office. If you work in multiple offices, e.g. a Corporate Office and a Home Office you want to create these under a master context Office since for some Actions it is good enough to be in any office, but for a few, like picking up a package or posting expense receipts, you need to be at a specific office. If you are so lucky to have multiple homes, like a holiday house for example, you can use the same approach by creating corresponding child Contexts under "Home".
The Context group Errands implements the same concept. Assign errands at places you do not go to on a regular basis to the root Contexts while creating child Contexts for places you drop in often. But keeping the rules in mind the can be as broad as the town you live in or as specific as Walmart. You can also enter a generic Online Context under Errands or specific ones such as Amazon. Just make sure you hit the right level of granularity by making sure there are always a minimum set of Actions assigned to these Contexts.
With the iOS versions of OmniFocus you can also assign GPS coordinates to any of your Contexts which makes most sense for your Places Contexts. This will allow you to trigger notifications for any Actions when you enter or leave the proximity of a specific location, also known as GPS fencing. This is where you need to make some smart choices or at least experiment a little: Do you always buy at the same pharmacy or does it actually not matter in which pharmacy you buy your subscriptions? You may only like to get your meat from your trusted butcher, but the can of beans can really be from any supermarket. Assign or do not assign GPS fences purposely.
If you travel a lot to the same cities or countries it is maybe worthwhile to create a Travel Context with some child Contexts for these locations as well. Whether it is a restaurant you want to reserve a table at when next time in Rome or buy your partner a box of pralines when you stop-over in Belgium on the quarterly trip through North Europe you may have enough and specific Actions to assign.
Your set of tools obviously depend on the craft you master. In some professions tools correspond with places: Photographers need their studio and wood workers their workshop. But many jobs have become, at least to an extent, mobile and for many the main tool is a laptop or a desktop computer.
Having a Computer Context may just be a little too broad. Consider creating child Contexts that further specify and allow for better batch processing which is known to be an immense productivity booster by itself. Having 100 Actions in a single Computer Context is not fun and natural choices are close. Maybe there are some Actions that can (only) be done on your iPad, if you are post processing imagery or do a lot of graphic design work it might be worth having a Photoshop or InDesign Context. More generic are Contexts like Offline which capture all tasks you can do when not connected to the Internet (which gets rarer these days unless you make an intentional choice). Contexts like Email, or more general Communication and Web Research help with the previously mentioned batch processing. This way you can really try to only do email twice or three times a day instead of all the time. If you are dependent on VPN access for a part of your work you can create a Context for this as well assuming you need to establish the VPN connection manually.
In the beginning I mentioned activity based Contexts. Some of them like Read/Review or Watch for your Reading List, Instapaper, Pocket, YouTube or Vimeo backlog work well inside Computer.
People as a Context category behaves very similar to Places as it primarily depends how often you interact with a certain person, group or party. Only if it is regular and enough Actions or topics form part of this interaction a distinct Contexts is justified. General Contexts like Calls or the top-level Contexts Agendas and Waiting For are best suited to hold interactions with people, groups or parties which occur only once or on an infrequent and limited basis.
Under Agendas as well as Waiting For, which capture discussion topics as well as delegated or outstanding Actions respectively, you can implement a hierarchy of companies, teams and individuals as long as you stick to the four rules introduced earlier. If you manage a Team you can capture topics for your regular team meeting in this Contexts while sub-contexts representing each member of the team can be used for 1-to-1 items. In larger organisations it might also be worth to have an Agenda Context for each of your Peers Whether the company is big or small, everyone will have a Boss (and if it is the board) you are accountable to.
If this hierarchy of People and Waiting For Contexts looks too complex and inflexible to you, read about a much simplified approach in "A Perspective for People & Meetings"
Depending on your job, there might be other functions you interact with on a regular basis, a fixed set of key customers, vendors or other external parties. With good common sense you will determine which ones deserve their own Context and which can live with the generic Agendas and Waiting For ones.
There is, hopefully, a life beyond work and your Partner in life definitely deserves his own Context. Depending on their age your kids may need one as well and so could other family members assuming there is enough going on with them on a regular basis. If you work a lot with your Community or accepted a function in Charity or Sports Club you should investigate establishing Contexts for those as well. But remember that this is about People and not a substitute for a Project Folder structure: These Contexts capture items you need to address at the next meeting of the Charity's board or with the accountant of your son's hockey club.
The Waiting For Context is a very special one since it is the only one you should put "On Hold" by default. Every item captured represents something you are waiting for: A delegated Action, a promise, a package or an email. Since you cannot action the item (as someone else needs to) putting the Context "On Hold" makes sure the associated Actions get out of your way until a Due Date (and really every Waiting For item should have one) brings it back to your attention.
Another special Context can be Someday/Maybe. Whether you confine items which you have not made a decision about yet in a single list or not, a "On Hold" Someday/Maybe Context makes sure these items which are by definition not (yet) actionable, stay out of your way until you next Review as well.
Contexts over Time
The longer you practice GTD® the more your Contexts will evolve. Often they significantly reduce in number with your overall structure becoming a lot more simpler. Contexts are a very important crutch as you learn to structure your commitments and make more conscious decision about them. Once these behaviours become automatic, i.e. habits, the crutches start to become less important. Personally I came up with an evolved definition of Contexts themselves and overtime reduced them to a bare minimum as over a decade of Getting Things Done® has created a very different mindfulness about what, when and where I do things or commit to them.