Cutting Down On Contexts in OmniFocus

If you’ve read any of my posts on OmniFocus, you’ve heard me reference the excellent series of videos that David Sparks created to help new users get acclimated. Since spending the time watching his three-hour walk through, I really haven’t had to spend much time tweaking with the application. It gave me an amazing framework for using the app to get my work done.

While most of my use of OmniFocus embraces the tactics he introduced, there is one area where I’ve recently made some serious changes. I’ve boiled my Contexts down to two: work and home.

What Are Contexts

If you’re not an OmniFocus or GTD person, Contexts are a concept that stem from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. According to a PDF created by the team at OmniFocus on how to use GTD alongside their app, Contexts are:

A tool, resource, or location required to complete an action. In OmniFocus, Context mode groups actions by their required Contexts. This way, instead of working through a project action by action — which could take you to many different places or require different tools — you can consider what’s available to you now and go from there.

For example, let’s say you find yourself with a spare moment and decide to make some calls. You know you need to call your co-worker about that really important assignment, and your phone Contexts shows that you need to return a call to your friend. Even though they’re from different projects, they can be accomplished with the same tool.

Simply put, for every task you create, you select a single Context that represents the primary person, place or thing that you need to do your work. The benefit of these Contexts are the ability to filter or organize your work by similar action. For example, by focusing in on my Email context I would see any task that requires me to jump into Gmail.

How Was I Using Contexts

When I first started I had Contexts for everything. My Mac was a Context, my MacBook Air was a Context, my iPhone, iPad, Car, Phone, Home, Desk, My Wife, My Kids… all Contexts. There were a lot of them, too many in fact. Everyone I worked directly with in my office were not only their own Context, but they were a sub-Context of my overall “co-workers” Contexts. It quickly came to feel excessive and was slowing me down when entering Tasks or processing my OmniFocus inbox.

How I Use Them Now

When I took a step back, I realized that everything fell into one of two important distinctions: is a Task for “Work” or is it for “Home”. Everything else was just detail for details sake (at least for me). This two-Context system increased the speed of entering Tasks and hasn’t proven to be a pain point since I made the change about six months ago. I know where to look whenever I need to find something for my career and where to go when I want to work on just about anything else. I was tempted to add in a third Context in order to separate home Tasks that relate to my family and friends from those that connect to my hobbies here on the web, but decided against it. Seeing everything I should be doing at home has proven to be a helpful way to ensure both aspects of my life get the time they need.

But How Do You Batch Tasks Together?

The most logical use for Contexts, as the description above reminds us, is to batch Tasks together that aren’t within the same project. So how do we manage this without Contexts? Simple, just take an extra second to think about the description when creating or processing Tasks. Then, when working on calls, just use the search bar to filter out any Task that starts with the word “Call” same for things like “Email”, “Write”. Same with peoples names. Just be consistent. When I know I’m going to be talking to my boss or my wife about a few things, I use the search to see what I have to go over with them. I have to remember to include this when naming a Task, but it’s proven easier than managing multiple Contexts every time I create one.

Why Bother Having Them At All

When I first started thinking about Contexts and how I would continue using them, my initial instinct was to eliminate them all together. I already had items separated by project and by getting rid of them, it would also be one less thing to enter when creating or processing Tasks. So why keep them? Perspectives. In OmniFocus Contexts are custom views in OmniFocus. By continuing to enter a Context for either “Home” or “Work.” I can easily see what is on my plate for either. I can also have my laptop default to the “Home” view and my desktop at work default to my “Work” Perspective. It helps me keep a bit of distance between the two and makes everyday use of OmniFocus a bit more manageable.

While this probably takes me away from the canonical uses of both OmniFocus and GTD, it’s proven to be far more effective for me. It’s one less thing to worry about when creating Tasks and much like another recent decision to get rid of my folders in email (another post for another day), it’s streamlined the way I work. It lets me worry less about how I structure my work and has me spending more time actually doing it.

12 Responses to Cutting Down On Contexts in OmniFocus

  1. I went through this same dilemma recently. I was wasting time trying to consider contexts that weren’t buying me any added productivity. Now I’m down to four:

    • digital
    • analog [misuse of the word, I know, but I just wanted something to represent “not on computer”]
    • errand
    • on hold

    I wanted to separate the computer/device tasks from the ones unrelated to computers (like putting out the recyclables or giving myself another ugly haircut). I also wanted to separate the ones that required me to take a trip somewhere. And then there are the tasks that are in a waiting state. These are four basic ways I like to sort my tasks other than by project. But to be honest, 83.5% of the time I just want things sorted by available tasks in a particular project. I’m so project-oriented that I often wonder what it would be like to eliminate context entirely… it almost feels like the concept of context is a bit more forced in this overly connected era.

    • I’d get rid of them entirely if it wasn’t for the work/home workspace divide. Having that split just lets me keep my work computer focused on work and home focused on the rest. As for the waiting, I’ve tried a few things there, but haven’t quite found the thing that works. That kind of delegation is OF’s one true weak point.

  2. You could just create a folder for home projects and another for work and keep your contexts.  I’ve used this workflow with a perspective for each for several years now and it works for me.  Doing away with contexts (especially those related to the folks I work with) would be a disaster for me.  When I go into a meeting, I look around at the attendees and quickly select their context to determine who I need to speak to about what after the meeting.  I even use this when I greet someone in the hall or at the coffee station.  I keep my iPhone in context mode, switch quickly to theirs and ask away.  I understand that not everyone has things waiting for a large number of people, but I am a project manager and do little of the actual work myself but have many, many others performing tasks for my projects.  John

    • It may prove to be a pain point over time, but I’m a few months in and havent had any problem with just adding people’s names to the task (Review XYZ with Jen) and then using search to filter out tasks with their names. That said, if it becomes a pain point, I will be stealing the hell out of your method.

  3. Spending too much time inputting meta data for tasks is painful and wast of time yet setting some basic rules for splitting the information is still useful. Even if you abandon the Context field in Omnifocus or any app by using specific task naming convention you still use context. They are just in different place. My preference is it use two lists to separate Personal and Blog related activities and then slice them based on two contexts “@computer” or “@home” the latter meaning non digital activity. It’s simple enough yet it provides me with granularity I want.

  4. How are you keeping track of delegated tasks without context? Or are you? My biggest context list, is the people I need to delegate too… Curious if you came up with a different way to manage delegations…

      • :-) Agree, that works, but for me, having 30-40 people that I may delegate to, I need to find “simple” ways to keep track of what went where.. Painful… Contexts is what I use, but I would love a better way… I know that Things uses tagging, which would be interesting (ability to add “dimensions”) to tasks, but I’m invested in Omnifocus so, there I will stay for now!

        Thanks!! Patrick

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