Contexts in Getting Things Done and todo.txt

One of the great insights of the Getting Things Done (GTD) system is that tasks not only have projects, but contexts as well. A context is, basically, a thing or place or situation you need in order to do a task. Examples include: @home, @work, @phone, @computer, @errands, and so on. With projects and tasks, you can visualize your task list as a two-dimensional grid, with one row per project, and one column per context. This helps you determine what your next action should be. You can only do the tasks that are in the context you are currently in. That’s great, right?

What good is a context when I have everything at hand at all times?

Well…what I have found is that the typical set of contexts outlined in the “Getting Things Done” book are not really that useful to me. I only use my task list for work, so I’m always “@work”. I do all my work on a computer, which is portable, so I’m always “@computer”. I always have my mobile phone on me, so I’m always “@phone”. After diligently typing out these contexts in my todo.txt file and later ignoring them, for a long, long time, I realized that doing so was pointless. I only work in one context, so why bother to track it?

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

This was not immediately obvious to me because I was trying really hard to be a faithful GTD practitioner, and do everything that entails completely and correctly. When I realized that one of GTD’s key tools, the context, was useless to me, I felt lost. After rereading the “Getting Things Done” book, and trying even harder to commit to the system, I finally threw in the towel on contexts: I stopped using them entirely, for several years.

Doing so felt weird at first, and then liberating, like removing a little stumbling block from every task I wrote. I realized that following the system is not the important thing: getting my work done efficiently is the important thing. There was no point to keep adding contexts to tasks that did not need them.

Not using contexts in GTD

What I learned, obviously enough, is that not using contexts in GTD is fine. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t “pure” GTD. The system doesn’t matter; the results matter. If using contexts is just a minor drag on productivity, drop them and don’t give it a second thought.

Using contexts again, differently than before

After not using contexts for a few years, the nature of my work changed, and, as a consequence, I discovered new uses for them. My prior job entailed leading rather lengthy one-off audits, start to finish, with little commonality between them. My current job had me working mainly on data analytics procedures within over fifty similar audits, all performed over a several year period. Because of the highly structured nature of this work, and the tighter timeframes for producing deliverables, I sought to add more structure to my task list system. Contexts helped me do that.

The breakthrough for me was when I started using contexts to indicate phases of work (@planning, @development, @analysis, @reporting), and people I was working with (@Jo, @Susan, @Craig). These contexts had nothing to do with time, place, or equipment. Instead, they had to do with mental state (the type of thinking I had to do) and relationships with my coworkers. I am not always in the right mindset to perform a particular type of work (say, rigorous data analysis), and the people I am working with have different availability and expectations, so it is useful for me to keep track of those things in my task list.

Using projects and contexts with todo.txt

Todo.txt lets you manage your tasks using several axes: project and context, which tie directly to GTD concepts; and priority, which does not (though it is helpful to consider priority “A” your GTD “next action” indicator). While I have not come across any software that outputs your todo.txt file as a two-dimensional grid, pretty much all todo.txt apps have effective sorting and filtering capabilities. I filter and sort by todo.txt list on project and context numerous times throughout the day (mainly using SwiftoDo on my iPad), as I complete tasks and try to identify my next actions. Sorting and filtering on project and context, and diligently setting and resetting priorities, helps me stay productive and avoid letting things fall through the cracks every day.