My podcasting partner-in-crime Michael Schechter posed this challenge to me on Twitter:
That was quite the challenge, but I took it.
After that exchange, I saw a flurry of follow-up activity that was great to see. Several people had their own thoughts on what contexts were (and weren’t) and Schechter joined the fray with his own definition later on in the thread:
The question mark at the end was telling: There are so many different ideas of what contexts are that I think it is worth examining them not only from the vantage point of what they were initially defined as in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but how they have evolved in the years since the book was released.
The Original Definition
I’ve written about contexts before, explaining how I use energy levels as my main ones. But energy levels don’t appear to be factored in when looking at the basic definition of contexts offered in David Allen’s seminal work, Getting Things Done.
”Context lists can be defined by the set of tools available or by the presence of individuals or groups for whom one has items to discuss or present.” – – via Wikipedia
As more people adaopted GTD, and luminaries such as Merlin Mann added perspective, contexts began to change in order to accommodate more effective and efficient workflows. In fact, as contexts evolved they seemed to merge with the other elements of The Four-Criteria Model for Choosing Action in the Moment: Time Available, Energy Available, and Priority.
The Evolved Definition
This definition is much harder to pinpoint, as noted at the beginning of this piece, because there are more variables to consider.
Firstly, technology plays a much more prevalent role today than it did when the book was released. Take a listen to Mac Power Users 219 where David Sparks and Katie Floyd talk with David Allen about GTD and technology. Much like the ways you can capture, the ways you can define context can differ significantly. David Allen uses his trusted GTD Notetaker Wallet while David Sparks uses Drafts 4. I’m sure both of them use other methods, but in that episode they highlight those method as important ones for them. I use paper (with The Strikethrough System as a means to process my captured stuff) and digital tools almost equally, with Drafts receiving more usage the more familiar I get with Drafts 4. The point is that neither way is wrong or right. The point is that as long as you’re capturing consistently then you’re on track to get more of the right stuff done, which frees your mind to help you with processing your tasks instead of simply holding them.
The same goes for contexts. Through my experience in social interactions and through Productivityist Coaching, I’ve observed that some people are really into using the traditional contexts as laid out by David Allen. Most of these people are either still trying to adopt GTD or are GTD purists, so this makes sense. Other people are using “modes” to define what tasks they should work on, with contexts such as “Work Mode” and “Fun Mode” to chunk down their tasks to a more “doable” state. Sven Fechner has talked about energy levels as contexts, and I’ve followed suit. Some people use time intervals as contexts (i.e. “-5min” and “+30min”) in order to manage both their tasks and their time better. There are numerous ways to add context to your tasks and, as Schechter pointed out in his tweet, they are all forms of data.
But not everyone resonates with the word data. Even the word “information” seems cold to some. That’s why I often say the following when I try to explain contexts, which is something I couldn’t convey in 140 characters or less:
”Contexts add value to your tasks so that you can connect with them better. This allows you to use them to work on your tasks and projects through different lenses.”
When I took that idea to Michael Schechter in an email, he also added some valid points:
“Contexts are far from the only thing that adds value to a task. They only help you connect better with tasks if you use them well. And more often than not, their true value is in connecting multiple tasks rather than connecting you to a single task. It also does more than allow you to use them to work through different lenses. It forces you to first understand that you need different lenses to do your work, and then serves as them.”
What contexts you need to use to add value to your tasks and projects is purely subjective. What isn’t subjective is that using contexts is crucial because they give you those additional lenses with which to guide your work. At the most basic level, they help you organize your to-do list in different manners to support your workflow in a better fashion.
And when you use them well, they allow you to shift gears more effectively, which puts you in the position to work more efficiently over the long term.
If you’re not using contexts yet, then you’re selling yourself- and your workflow – short. Take some time to build, filter, and foster your contexts in a way that supports your workflow. It may be taxing in the short term to set them up, but you owe it to yourself in the long run to do so.