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:
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
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:
Andre Kibbe says
Ah, now I see where the friction comes from: layering domain and projects over and above physical location. Dustin Wax, I think, does the same thing, calling them “mental” contexts. If domain takes precedence, the mind has to manage the system instead of external triggers, which basically means operating from mental RAM.
Contexts have always been an optional component of GTD. They arguably make managing tasks more efficient, but the deeper philosophical issue is whether or not it’s acceptable to “let go” of one’s inventory of work to an external system. As David Allen wrote in Ready for Anything, “Many years ago, I decided that either your head is the place to hold something or it’s not.” Some variation of this issue has always been one of the loudest debates in GTD circles — usually in the context of linking actions to projects (i.e. using nested lists), which Allen argues against.
Mainly because I’m lazy, rather than swim upstream, I bypass domains/mental contexts altogether and let the external environment limit my options. Within this subset I ask myself which actionable task would have the most impact. In other words, if I’m at a computer, I only use a flat @Computer list that makes no reference whatsoever to which project or focus area each action fulfills. Each list is simply a drawer of options that holds no thinking (i.e. reminders of why the task is on the list); just the results of thinking.
I’m skeptical of claims that there are artistic “types” rather than artistic processes. What’s different in an artist’s life is the level of operational detail that needs to be managed externally. An office environment will naturally tend to require more calendars, lists and gear to manage obligations, since the interactions of more granular: more phone calls, more email, more paperwork and so on. Painters or musicians spend the bulk of their time (assuming they’re serious) creating or training, which is necessarily less transactional.
When artists do GTD, the process doesn’t change, just the amount of detail in the system, which may actually be low enough to not need a system as scalable as GTD in the first place. Instead of having 18 @Computer actions like “Email Anne,” “Edit PowerPoint slides,” and “Finalize November budget,” a musician might spend nine hours completing a track in Pro Tools — a single, monolithic next action. A jazz guitarist’s day might only involve rehearsing for several hours, then sitting in with a band for a live performance. There’s not enough intricacy to require a list.
There’s a tendency to overconceptualize context lists as something novel rather than natural, which is why I opened my post with the example of a grocery list. Virtually everyone makes this context list without questioning the principle behind it, but when the principle is ported to other contexts, it no longer seems like common sense. I think that’s probably because we’re so used to single-threaded To Do lists, and the fact that most organizers are built around calendars (the iPhone, for instance). But I suspect that will change over time.
A very thought-provoking post! Lots more for me to chew on over the weekend . . .
Andre Kibbes last blog post..Using Contexts to Simplify List Management
Vered - MomGrind says
I’m not really equipped to comment on the topic of GTD although god knows I’ve tried to do it at Tools. Thank you for the link. 🙂
Vered – MomGrinds last blog post..Chocolate-Covered Strawberries
Thanks for letting us in on the dialogue between you and Andre. I’ll definitely check out some of the previous posts between you two.
I similarly wrestle with contexts, and so have my coaching clients. One issue that you pointed to seems to be getting enough but not too much granularity, and it’s highly dependent on one’s work. I’ve gone from too many contexts to not enough and everywhere in between!
I sometimes agree more that lists should be organized by energy or type of thinking, and sometimes agree more than lists should be purely buckets, but I tend to end up on the energy-based list side.
Duffs last blog post..Deconstructing Personal Development, Part 3: State Management, Positive Thinking, and the Cultivation of Mania
John B. Kendrick says
I used contexts sparingly, and combine them with the use of project tags. So my contexts are basically the when and where and two suffice, “home” and “work”.
I also use contexts for people I contact regularly. This is a real time saver because whenever I meet with someone, I just click on their context, and all of the tasks with which they are related popup.
Of course, this only relates to an online GTD. The advantages of an online system are 1) organization and simple reorganization, e.g. switching from a view of all tasks in a specific project, to looking at tasks in context (when and where you can get them done) to chronological order by due or other date, to a view of only the next tasks that need to be done to further each project. 2) easy to search, 3) and this is the most important to me, having your lists with you wherever you are, at work, at home and even on the go, and 4) sharing your lists with others is much easier done electronically.
I’ve written several posts on GTD and the apps I use at http://johnkendrick.wordpress.com/how-to-gtd/
John B. Kendricks last blog post..~Nozbe Remembers . . .
Andre Kibbe says
@Duff: Good to see you back again! As far as context granularity, I think it’s better to err on the side of having too few than having too many. It’s too easy to forget to review contexts that haven’t become habitual yet. If you have less than an optimal number, you’re still likely to see the action triggers, even if they’re in the “wrong” context.
Andre Kibbes last blog post..Using Contexts to Simplify List Management
It is great that you’ve adapted the system to work for you. Zealously following GTD doesn’t work for everyone.
Stuarts last blog post..Photo of the Week
Mike Stankavich says
Charlie, I recall that even David Allen himself says that GTD is a framework of ideas that works best when you mold it to fit your situation. I find that I look at things in a quite similar way to what you have described. At this point, I differentiate between day job and non-day job domains, but I haven’t been kept the side business building domain separate from personal and maintenance domain. I’ll give some thought as to whether that makes sense for me.
I find that for me it works best to be very ruthless about what I designate as active projects and only track next actions for those projects. I can embed the next action within any project on my Hold list but not have it clutter up the Next Actions. I usually keep it down to 5-10 next actions per domain, so context tagging doesn’t really add a lot of value.
For what it’s worth, I use Ecco Pro as my capture tool, along with the Hipster PDA when I’m off line.
@Andre: “I’m skeptical of claims that there are artistic “types” rather than artistic processes. What’s different in an artist’s life is the level of operational detail that needs to be managed externally.”
I don’t mean anything more spooky here by “creative types” other than those people who repeatedly do creative tasks. The management of creative tasks are different, as you’ve addressed, so I just mean that the level of management that’s appropriate for “corporate types” is different than for creative types. So I think we agree on the processes bit – just I think that over time it’s those processes that make you who you are.
I’ll have to work on my presentation of domains in the future. I now understand how that, combined with some of the ideas I’ve had about creative energy, is key to why some people have such a hard time with the GTD stuff.
@Vered: You don’t give yourself enough credit. You’re one of the most productive people I know, just by the sheer amount of posts and comments you manage to leave. We “theorists” can learn a lot from you.
@Duff: The driving question for contexts is whether they add value to your workflow compared to other techniques. GTD-ish techniques like putting all phone numbers in my cell phone make it such that if I feel like talking and have the time, I can consult my lists and get it done. A @calls context is thus superfluous, as I’ve ingrained that habit and almost always have my cell phone.
I need to talk more about the energy stuff to make it more helpful to those of us struggling with it. How does one provide the appropriate scaffolding techniques that look at energy rather than contexts? There’s a diamond there that I need to mine.
@John: You’re absolutely right that there are a lot of advantages to an online GTD system. The biggest draw for me is not having to copy handwritten stuff over and over again. The biggest drawback is the monkeying around with stuff – I have a tendency to solve non-problems of mine with software and webware. With paper, I get back to what I’m doing faster. But I have to copy stuff. Oh, the dilemma!
@Andre (again): Fewer is definitely better. There are diminishing returns with the more complex your system gets.
@Stuart: Thanks for commenting. One of things I hope readers get out of the stuff I do here is to help roll their own system, as Francis Wade would put it.
@Mike: Damn, another hot topic! My wife and I use a similar technique to queue projects. There’s a fuzzy category that I don’t care much for, but given our shared projects, she finds it useful enough that I withhold my qualms with the system. I definitely need to think more about this. Thanks so much for adding your insight here!
Jared Goralnick says
Wow, quite the dialogue in all of this. I really appreciate your insight into contexts, as I too have had difficulty sticking to them. I’m going to hold onto this and go through in more depth when I reorder my tasks soon. Thanks!
Jared Goralnicks last blog post..Five confessions in failed attempts at “productivity,” where it’s led me, and where it can take you
Carlee Potter says
So glad I found your article on contexts, Charlie! I’m on day 2 of a 14-day trial period with OmniFocus and I’m seriously impressed with the application – in comparison to other task/project management systems I’ve tried.
But I am very new to GTD and this whole “context” business is making my brain feel like it’s melting! I actually started searching for context advice just now – thinking, ‘I need to get my head around this concept to make OmniFocus work for me’… but thanks to you, and comments from others, I’m gonna have a crack at tweaking the context system to suit my natural thought patterns.
Good article 🙂
Eric Doggett says
As a creative type (commercial photographer) who uses OmniFocus to manage my tasks, this post fit right in with me. I tried the context option, and quickly moved away from it because I was spending more time categorizing tasks than doing them.
A lot of photographers (myself especially) find it difficult to push through non “play with Photoshop/lighting/camera” tasks anyways, so adding the extra layer of “I have 10 minutes and a cell phone, what can I get done?” just didn’t work for me. We are a moody type, and are happy when the tasks we need to work on line up nicely with our creative interests for the day 🙂
Thanks for your post! I also did a similar application of GTD. My hang-up was that I was being efficient with all of the GTD context lists, but I wasn’t being EFFECTIVE. Instead, I chose to sacrifice a little bit of efficiency to boost effectiveness. To do this, I reorganized my projects and next actions under Areas of Focus. This, I believe is similar to what you have done. For example, I have my projects under Work – Work is an area of focus. Then all the next actions from these projects and other next actions that fall under Work that are not tied to a project are tracked under my list entitled Work Next Actions. This way I contain all the next actions and project actions that relate someway to my Work. I find this makes me MUCH more effective as I can prioritize easier and complete the important tasks I want to get done with more ease. This contrasts having to sort through all the next action context lists in order to find a next action related to a single project I want to move forward. This also eliminates having to sort through 30-40 calls on a calls list in order to complete one single action. Instead, I look at my Area of Focus next action list and pick from a few next actions that are relevant to what I want my Work at that time.
One hang up I have found is that if I want to do some “Errands,” I have to look through all my Area of Focus lists in order to find the next actions that would normally go on an “Errands” context list, however, I am willing to sacrifice some efficiency in order to greatly boost my effectiveness.
I realize this approach does break with the traditional GTD next action context model, but David Allen does suggest this is OK to do as
1) We must define what things mean to us
2) And then organize this items in places that reflect what they mean to us
Brett Kinnamon says
Isn’t it clear that your “domains” are your contexts?
Generally, in GTD “contexts” are externally anchored – i.e. what external things you need, what locations you need to be in, etc. Thinking in terms of domains both simplified my lists and also pointed to the more important question of what brainspace I needed to be in.
So, yes, and no. 🙂
Thanks for inviting me to think about this again. This piece is going on 4 years old.