Setting up GTD Contexts…

When breaking down your “stuff”, tasks get assigned a context. These contexts are an important piece for a functional GTD system since they allow you to quickly move to the next task based upon certain criteria without having to re-process your entire list of work. Given their key role in the system and highly personal nature, they’re also a big point of contention among practitioners. Here are a few things that I’ve found.

Context Types

Contexts generally fall into 3 types:

  1. Location based contexts – “Home”, “Work”, “Errand” (specific store)
  2. Tool dependent contexts – “Mac”, “Browser”, “Phone”
  3. People specific contexts – “Boss”, “David”, “Spouse” (please use their name)

Given the broad range of people and tools we interact with on a daily basis, this list could get out of hand really fast. If you’re trying to figure out what contexts For people contexts, I’ve found that keeping the top 5 people I see the most and the least handles most cases. If you’re unsure what your contexts should be, keep a log for a week. Record where you went, who you saw/talked with, what tools you used at regular intervals throughout the day and the compile your list from that. Don’t forget to record the weekend.

Be Wary of “Anywhere”

“Anywhere” is a catch all and can be a dumping ground so be careful. It should only be for “thought” items since your brain is probably the only things you carry with you 100% of the time. Personally, I skip it so I don’t have to worry about it getting out of hand but you could always rename it to “brainstorm” a la Merlin Mann. Don’t put “Read & Review” items on here – that’s just redundant.

One and Only One

Nothing should ever have more than 1 context. If you think it does, you haven’t thought the task through completely. “I could do this at home. Or at work if I have [noun]”. That noun should be your context not “Home” as it is your real dependency. Often times envisioning yourself completing the task will help in finding the right context.

Too Much

If a context gets more than about 15-20 items, it may be too general – or you may have committed to too much. Go back and do a fair assessment of your current commitments and see if you shouldn’t put off or turn down some of your projects. Trying to function with a list of that many items means you’ll have to re-process the whole list in order to figure out what to do next and that’s wasted effort.

To Tag or Not To Tag

Ok, so they’re not EVIL really unless you try to use them as contexts instead of what they’re really meant for – metadata. And, in my opinion, tags are not helpful since they simply expand the metadata around the task rather than adding to the effort to get it done. If you’re a total report monster, they’re cool to slice and dice but then I’d question how much work you’re getting done. I know I’ve burned numerous hours tweaking reports and graphs that later were completely useless.

Evolve your system. Change your contexts if you think that it will help – if you don’t like it, change it back or try something different. GTD is about find a setup that works for you within the framework.

David O’Hara is a Senior Consultant with Improving Enterprises in Dallas, Texas.


7 Responses to Setting up GTD Contexts…

  1. […] Setting up GTD Contexts… [Driven to Develop] […]

  2. Mike says:

    I keep coming back to this page for a reality check when my GTD contexts start getting out of hand, or I’m tempted to get “clever” with my GTD system.


    Thanks for such a great explanation.

  3. Oliver says:

    Good post, I think that the context are so changing and “easy to get out of handy” 😉

    Just started a sales based gtd blog, feel free to visit.

  4. Ausmus says:

    […] of cohtext vrom David Ohara: […];

  5. […] I have professed my love for here), post-it notes, index cards, and a Fisher Space Pen.  I read here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here to learn how others setup their context, projects and […]

  6. […] Setting up GTD Contexts… [Driven to Develop] […]

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