GTD Contexts: Are They Redundant In The Digital Age?

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Man holding digital technology - GTD Contexts

Search for ‘to-do list app‘ in Google and it’s likely you’ll fall, like Alice, down a deep, dark rabbit hole.

Hundreds of to-do apps wrestle in a competitive market. Each app promises something bigger and better. Buy this app … it has tags. Buy that app … it has batch editing. Or perspectives. Filters. Scheduling. Someday / maybe folders!??

To the uninitiated, many of these features may sound like Spanish (or Swahili.) Yet most are based on the hugely popular to-do list methodology called Getting Things Done®[1] (GTD), by David Allen. ‘Contexts’ is a central theme in GTD and feature strongly in most high powered apps on the market.

Yet are the benefits of contexts over-stated in the digital age?

What are GTD Contexts?

Contexts are hugely popular. According to David Allen, a context can be a place (I.e. @hardware store), a person (I.e. @agenda with Tom) or a productivity tool (I.e. @phone or @mac). They provide a way of assigning detail to an action/to-do to further define where and/or how a task will get done.

Most [actions] require a specific location (at home, at your office) or having some productivity tool at hand, such as a phone or a computer. These are the first factors that limit your choices about what you can do in the moment

– David Allen, Getting Things Done®, p.49 –

In this quote, David Allen rightly suggests that one cannot complete a to-do if they don’t have the necessary tools at hand. It’s hard to make a phone call without a telephone or buy a box of nails without being at a hardware store. By organising our to-do’s by context, we ensure that we review only those actions that are actually available to us at any given time.

Have Contexts Become Redundant?

Who here still uses an encyclopaedia when looking up information?

When David Allen wrote Getting Things Done®, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was at its peak and reaching all times sales. Apps didn’t exist and so his to-do list was on paper. He physically needed to be at the office in order to work. In the pre-digital world, adding a context therefore made a lot of sense. If you needed to type a memo, you physically had to be at the office. It therefore made sense to only read those tasks marked as @office. Smart thinking!

Now fast forward two decades. Everything has become connected and interconnected. My phone is my office and it lives in my pocket. I don’t need a filing cabinet as everything is stored electronically. I’m always connected to the internet. My team is a swipe away and my calendar goes wherever I go.

In the digital age, a different question needs to be asked: When do I not have all the tools that are needed to do my work? The original logic of GTD contexts has stopped making sense. When @phone / @mac / @email / @filing cabinet etc. all occur on the same device, what is the benefit of specifying a context at all?

David Allen is Wrong (When it Comes to Contexts)

This is a dangerous statement.

In some circles, it might be considered a productivity blasphemy, punishable by a lecture on fountain pens, label makers or ‘fun’ filing!

But hear me out.

If the sole purpose of assigning a context to an action/to-do is to define, at any single point in time, ‘what you can do,’ then I reckon it’s a wasted effort. The time cost required is no longer worth the payoff.

“But what about other benefits of contexts!” I hear my GTD friends exclaiming. For example, ‘batch tasking’ to lump particular types of activities together to maximise efficiency. Sorry guys, but my answer is still the same. Sure, it might be helpful to pull up a list of phone calls when in a particularly chatty mood. Or handy to remember both the hammer and the nails (@hardware) when visiting the hardware store.

Yet these benefits alone are not actually great enough to warrant the effort of assigning a context to every single to-do.

David Allen is Right (When it Comes to Contexts)

That said. David Allen is also right. I still use contexts and assign one to every to-do on my list.

Surprised? Well, they are still useful. But not primarily for the reasons promoted by David Allen. The reason that I assign contexts are to create what scientists call Implementation Intentions. Commonly known as Action Triggers.

Action Triggers are a complex form of planning that powerfully unlocks future behaviour. They are formed by clearly defining ‘where and when’ a future task will be done. According to the science, by visualising ‘where and when’, our brain creates a neural image of the desired event, which then triggers a desired action when the future situation or circumstance arises.

Where and when. Sound familiar?

This is exactly the type of scenario created when adding a context to an action/to-do. By adding @phone and a scheduled date, a future image of calling Jane on a Monday morning is created in your brain. This increases the likelihood of that action occurring. When Monday 9am ticks by, you automatically reach for your iPhone to enact the action pre-empted by your brain.

So What’s The Verdict?

Action/to-do contexts are still valuable. Yet not for the reasons we originally thought.

Action triggers are the key. By clarifying where (@wherever) and when you plan to do a future task, your brain becomes primed to actually get stuff done.

While we are on the topic, try our 2 minute quiz to help you find the best to-do list app for you!

How do you use contexts and why do they work for you? We’d love you to add a comment below … 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin Books, London.
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4 Comments

  1. I don’t use contexts; I use scope: 1) personal (folders labelled “my” admin; my research; my writing; my teaching; my conferences; etc); 2) my work unit name (broad activity streams; committees; etc); 3) department; 4) institution; 5) national. Then I have a series of “Current” folders also organised by activities and responsibilities. This is all digital. I then have a paper-based system of three columns: 1) Today; 2) Follow-up; 3) Looming. Today usually has 10-15 items on it that get shifted to tomorrow or the next day as things get added. Email is a huge, 2-hour/day task. I alway check emails on holidays because I am afraid of my in-box.

  2. A great conversation Dan – I’ve struggled with how to use Contexts myself for exactly the reasons you describe. Should my contexts be based on location, tools required, person to discuss with…?? I find there are still uses for all of these and perhaps it is the act of choosing a context that helps firm up what that next action task really is and when/where I need to do it.

    A related query I have is the use of contexts vs tags in an app like Doit. In a world where metadata is king and we can cut and dice data into various views, there is a temptation to go crazy with tags. I guess your point though, is that the return on that time investment to assign tags is rarely worth it? Spend more time doing tasks rather than define the perfect matrix of categories perhaps.

    1. Thanks for your comment James. I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest that contexts and tags need a ‘return on time investment’. If there’s a good reason to use them, then go for it. But if not, then keep it simple.

      We commonly teach people to set up tags in to-do list apps like Doit, Things and Todoist, however keep it lean and to the point.

      Personally, I use a high priority tag to determine my 5 ‘big rocks’ (most important tasks) for the week.

      I use these contexts:
      @errands – to look at what I need to collect in town at any one time;
      @phone – to batch my phone calls, as I struggle with phoning people;
      @K&D – specifically for stuff I need to buy at a hardware store!

      I also use these tags as lists:
      .Movies to watch
      .Presents to buy
      .Books to read
      .Crazy ideas to do one day

      Hopefully that’s helpful. Thanks again for reading!

      P.S. If you want to find a todo list app that fits you, try this link: http://spacemakers.com.au/find-list-app/

  3. I’ve been trying to implement GTD for almost a year. I get the brain dump done and then struggle with the contexts. I am relieved to learn that it’s a common problem. I thought it was just me. Plus I’m a full-time homemaker, not an office worker, so everything is done at HOME. I still want to do GTD but I haven’t come up with an effective way to do contexts. However, now that I realize why the contexts described in the book don’t really work for most of us, I might be able to figure something out.