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Why GTD Contexts Are More Work Than They're Worth (For Me)
For those of you who worry that comments aren't worth the trouble and that meaningful dialogues are a spectre of wishful thinking, I entreat you to take note of this blog post. This one's not about the whole "To shut off comments or not to" discussions - rather, it's an example of how two bloggers keep conversations going.
All that said, Andre and I have had several comments and posts back and forth over the last few months regarding some of the tenets of GTD and why some of us tweak or abandon the system. In his post Using Context to Simplify List Management that's partially motivated by a comment I left on his post When to Do Low-Priority Tasks, Andre brilliantly canvasses some possible problems people have with understanding and applying GTD principles and how to amend these problems.
Here's the salient part of his intro:
Context lists are popular within GTD, but some users are like Charlie: having multiple lists like @Computer, @Home, @Errands, @Calls and @Office seems to create more work than it saves.
I’ve always found that position curious, since context lists were one of the first things I latched onto when reading Getting Things Done. It made logical and intuitive sense that looking at a list of 13 next actions is easier than looking at a list of 130. Now's probably not the best time for me to respond, as I've been having trouble writing this afternoon. But I'm so interested in the dialogue that I'll put concerns of incoherence aside. Caveat Emptor!
Have I Really Abandoned GTD?
I need to articulate and think about my position a bit better, as it may turn out that I've ingrained GTD-ish principles that make @context lists redundant. For example, I basically have five different domains in which I live: my Guard job, my University job, finishing my dissertation, blogging at Productive Flourishing, and consulting via Productive Flourishing. Let's set aside any discussion of how ridiculous it is to be attempting so many discrete activities.
Sidebar: I've been working on quick words that capture what level I'm thinking about. Domains are above metaprojects, which are above projects, which are above tasks. This roughly corresponds with the altitude metaphor in GTD.
My university responsibilities all happen in the context of my office at work, and actions/projects/etc. are all recorded in a notebook that remains at work. I've kept vestiges of my Notebook Based Productivity system despite becoming more digital via my home server and iPhone. Given that I've internalized writing good ToDo lists and that I keep them pretty short, I don't have monolothic ToDo lists in the context of my office.
Likewise, my Guard actions normally happen in particular contexts and are contained in their own notebook. Again, given that I keep things moving along pretty well, the daunting ToDo list never appears.
The last three domains are more energy-dependent than location-dependent, and my versatile way of tracking them while keeping them compartmentalized makes it such that (again) I can see the items I need to do without worrying about large ToDo lists.
That's a quick summary of my current productivity system. I'll save what little bit of the finite amount of detail that most of us can stand for the next section.
Getting Things Done, or Getting Metaproductivity Done?
What I learned from trying to use a GTD system in its native form was that I would get overwhelmed by either how much I was trying to do or how much managing I was doing to get it drilled down to what I actually felt like doing. For instance, my more pure GTD system looked like this:
Domain: Guard Projects: Project 1, Project 2, Project 3...etc. Project 1 Tasks: NA, Task 1, Task 2, Task 3 Task Context: @calls, @email, @milnet, @armory, @computer
Domain: Dissertation Projects: Project 1, Project 2, Project 3...etc. Project 1 Tasks: NA, Task 1, Task 2, Task 3... Task Context: @computer, @library, @Mark, @department, @email
It goes on like this, but with the three other domains. The problem occurred when I looked at my context lists - let's take the @email context, for example. That list may have:
Email Mark about problem with Chapter 1, Section 4.
Email Readiness NCO about Project X
Email Scott with Birthday wishes
Email Andre about ideas for Tools For Thought
Email Rebecca to follow-up re: Project Y
The rub is that the mindframe I need to be in to do these different tasks is substantially different. A good bit of this is the different lingos and memes that are at play: explaining the same problem to Mark (my dissertation advisor) and my battalion commander requires completely different techniques. It made more sense for me to then recategorize my clean @email list to be sorted by what domain it fell within. Alternatively, I could have had another context as @email-mil, @email-diss, @email-blog, but then the sheer number of context lists became unwieldy. In the end, it made more sense for me to think about what domain I felt like dealing with, then sorting through the projects associated with that domain.
It should be relatively clear that the pure-GTD "context" wasn't driving the train for me - something closer to "energy" was. To remain productive under the GTD-model, I found myself spending so much time categorizing tasks by the domain that I spent a lot of time monkeying around with lists. It felt good to get everything in the right place, but getting them in the right place was not getting them done. It was metaproductivity.
I accidentally fell into using multiple notebooks simply because the Guard started me with their issued notebooks and I wanted to keep my personal stuff somewhere else but in a similar form. It worked for me because I spent less time on metaproductivity and more time getting things done.
Keeping the Good Parts, Getting Rid of the Rest
GTD is dead-on about keeping similar things together. It so happens that the primary sorting categories for me are not based on pure-GTD "context," but rather on the type of domain (and thus, energy) the stuff falls into.
The way I think about and sort my stuff into different notebooks naturally sorts things in the right way for me, and the "OMG!" that comes from having huge lists faded away because the lists aren't huge. They're scattered and compartmentalized - true - but they're kept in a way that actually keeps me on the doing task rather than the meta-doing task.
What I'm thinking but am having a hard time articulating into thoughts that other sentient beings would find coherent is that the execution of GTD-principles is different for creative types than it is for the more corporate-types for which it was developed. Once one substantially modifies the execution bit of GTD, it looks less like the system as popularized. It may not warrant being called GTD anymore, but I'm not sure how much hinges on it being called "GTD."
For the many domains I'm trying to manage, it's easier for me to manage compartmentalized lists based on the type of mindframe I need to be in or energy I have to do them. So rather than asking the question of whether it's easier to look at a list of 13 next actions rather than 130, I ask whether it's easier to look at lists presorted by how (mentally) I need to get them done rather than a combined list specified by the location or technique I need to do to get them done. Furthermore, let's not just ask about the list itself - let's also ask about the maintenance and presentation of the list, as well.
I should note that this isn't a bulletproof system. Things fall through the cracks and get put in the wrong place. But given that I usually remember where I put the item since I only have a few dumping grounds, it really hasn't been any more onerous than things not making it to the pure-GTD inbox.
Hopefully, this explains my aversion to (GTD) context-type thinking. As always, I really appreciate Andre providing such thoughtful content and pressing such great questions. His insights, questions, and participation here and in the blogosphere weigh heavily into why I keep at the blogging thing. (Andre: if you have any posts you'd like me to add to the list below from T4T, just let me know.)
For more dialogues between me and Andre about GTD and productivity, check out: