Putting Contexts Into Perspective

There’s been a lot of talk about the ever-evolving role that contexts play in our personal productivity.

Some believe them to be extremely useful. Others feel their importance is diminished as our tools become more capable and multi-purpose.

When I first started, I used contexts religiously. I had plenty of them. By plenty, I mean too many. What constitutes too many? Well, let’s use my iPhone as a tangible example. At first it was its own context, but I quickly realized that I can just as often do the same work on my iPad, my work computer or my laptop. So what did I do? I created a hierarchy. There was a master context for Devices with two subcategories, iDevices and Computers. Than those subcategories including the actual devices as their own sub-subcategories. This way, if something could be done using any if these, it was given the context of Devices. If a specific tool was best, I would assign it to that. Sensible right? Nope. It was crazy, or at least it was driving me crazy.

Context Contradictions

Not only was it too much, but there were too many contradictions. In addition to devices, I also use location. So where should this carefully crafted Devices context with all of the sub and sub-subcategories go? My desktop is only at work, my laptop is more commonly at home (but occasionally is needed in the office), my iPhone is always with me and my iPad most commonly sits on a shelf.

While there may be a way to make this all make sense in some super-complicated nested hierarchy, I just couldn’t see the benefit. Over time, for the most part, I found that contexts were something I had rather than something I used. The overly complicated approach I took to them was getting in my way more than it was pushing my work forward, something needed to be done.

My initial instinct was to eliminate them, to make the problem go away entirely, but considering I lean heavily on a few key contexts this would have been as poor a choice as allowing them to pile up.

A rule of thumb for contexts

So, what to do? Well, I started by doing a careful review of two things:

  • What contexts were actually being used by active, upcoming and recently completed tasks?
  • Which contexts were actively being used to identify work or create perspectives in OmniFocus (my task app of choice)?

Two things became clear:

  • While every task had a context, I wasn’t using all that many of the far too many contexts I had.
  • While many contexts were useful, only two were essential.

As I continued to step back, every task fell squarely into one of two contexts, Work or Home and that’s where I settled. The Work context drives the default perspective on my desktop and Home is the default view on my laptop (and like any good nerd, I have keyboard shortcuts to toggle between them or to show all). Much as they are location based, they often serve as the logical separation of tasks. Could I dive deeper into each and split them into more and more specific contexts? Of course, but every time I did that, the complexity of my system seemed to increase exponentially.

So, my rule of thumb? Only use contexts that are essential and then (and this is the important part) name your tasks so that you can use search to identify related tasks.

If you’re consistent with your naming, you can use search to identify or group tasks. When I enter “Write” into search, anything that needs to be written comes up including “Write a blog post on how I use Contexts”. Considering this task could have been written on my desktop, my laptop, my iPad, my iPhone (it was actually written across at least two of these), in many cases could have been written at home or at work (or the subway for that matter). The same hold true for regular actions like “Call”, “Email”, “Follow up with” and more. By using the Work and Home Contexts, I also get the added benefit of an additional filter which accommodates for my location and my mindset.

My approach is far from perfect; in fact, I’ve struggled a bit with the way OmniFocus handles contexts that could be done at both Work, Home or anywhere in between. It’s also led me to take location-based errands out of OmniFocus and into other apps (none of which I’m particularly thrilled with, so I may eventually build an Errands context and try to bring this back into the fold). Imperfect as it may be, it has provided me with a lightweight system for creating my essential views and attacking my tasks in a logical way.

As you you start toying with contexts or looking at the way others create their own, there’s really no right or wrong way to go about this. It’s more about finding what works best for you and what doesn’t. In my case, I needed to boil everything down as far as I could; others crave a hierarchy that has thought of everything, most will fall somewhere in-between the two. I’ve found tremendous value in determining the contexts that are essential and in naming tasks consistently for recall, but that’s just what works for me. The real question here is have you figured out the best way that contexts work for you?

4 Responses to Putting Contexts Into Perspective

  1. My .02… so much of GTD falls into the “Sounds great in theory but…” category. Don’t get me started on platitudes like “Mind Like Water”.

    I’m still bummed Dr. Covey never rejigged the last chapter of 7 Habits (Weekly planning, etc) for the knowledge worker. Alas, in 2001, the cubicle bees were swamped in email. Salvation came in the form of manilla folders and label makers.

    I think the pendulum is starting to swing back towards meaning-making productivity systems. I nominate Dave Seah to lead us out of the desert.

      • Hi Cameron – I lean towards productivity modalities that incorporate some of the following attributes: a. Journaling/nostalgia – relevant feedback to see how my life was going (is doing) b. The Why(s) – Dr. Covey, T. Robbins & others encourage finding powerful reasons for doing what you’re doing c. Tracking – Where is my time and attention going? d. Some form of weekly reflection/review e. Procrastination busting rules/penalty i.e. DWM by M. Forster

        As a therapist, I don’t see clients/families/couples struggling with many of the problems that you read about in Lifehacker or productivity blogs. True, they’re symptomatic i.e.anxious, depressed, etc, but within a few sessions, they’re moving past the minutiae and discussing relational i.e. state of the marriage, or existential issues i.e. Purpose.

        So that’s what I look for in tools and methodology.

  2. Contexts are important, and I find it interesting how you seem to have bounced from a very finely granular mode to only having two. For myself, I like to batch things, so I have a limited number of contexts. In fact, you mention one of the amazing things that has happened in the past few years, the seamless sync across devices and locations. This used to be a big obstacle to productivity, now we almost take it for granted.

    My own “Contextualization” pretty much breaks down into types of activities: e-mail (in- and outbound), calls, housekeeping, errands, writing for pay, client work, etc.

    I’d like to second what Avrum said about journaling – such an amazing tool ( I wrote a little article about it here http://www.createwritenow.com/personal-journal-blog/bid/78810/How-I-Do-My-Morning-Pages) both for creativity, reflection, and for developing more meaning in what it is you are doing.

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