43 Folders

43 Folders feed subscription icon - Shiny!Time, Attention, and Creative Work. After 4 years and a lot of productivity pr0n, we’re shifting gears. Re-learn how to use 43 Folders. Then back to work. [»]

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Back to GTD: Simplify your contexts

This post is part of the periodic “Back to GTD” series, designed to help you improve your implementation of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

As we’ve noted before, GTD contexts lose a lot of their focusing power when either a) most of your work takes place at one context (e.g. “@computer”), or b) you start using contexts more for taxonomical labeling than to reflect functional limitations and opportunities. As you may have discovered, these problems can collide catastrophically for many knowledge workers, artists, and geeks.

Part of what makes the Natural Planning Model so attractive are the decisions that can be guided by contextual limitations (“I’m near a phone” vs. “I’m at the grocery store” vs. “I’m at my computer”). While it’s definitely a kind of “first world problem” to have, facing the unlimited freedom to chose from any of a bajillion similar tasks from similar projects with similar outcomes is not nearly as fun as it first sounds. Consider the contextual hairballs of certain jobs and tasks:

  • Developer - Much of the work is writing new code, fixing old code, or testing code. All of these require essentially the same tools and environment, so how do you apply real contexts?
  • Writer - Needs to research, draft, revise, and edit manuscripts. While the “Write book” project will break down nicely into multiple sub-projects and tasks, how do you satisfactorily “context-ize” this physically identical work?
  • Designer - Whether coming up with a print layout, web design, or what will become a physical artifact, how do you segment the work further than “@photoshop” and “@illustrator”?

This causes many of us to fashion more or less phoney-baloney “sub-contexts” that reflect some facet of the parent (e.g. “@computer” might contain “@email,” “@web,” “@code,” “@print,” and so on). While this makes terrific sense from a logical standpoint (and it can certainly have its uses), it doesn’t reflect the true meaning of a context, at least in my own mind: “what tools, resources, opportunities, and limitations are unique to this situation?” or put slightly differently from the perspective of choosing tasks at a given time, “what are the things I can’t work on now given where I am and the tools to which I have access?”

More and more, I think the solution may be to toss out or consolidate any contexts that don’t have unique functional attributes. I mean, by all means, keep them if they’re working for you, but if you find yourself spending more time deciding where to file tasks than actually completing them, you might consider dialing your contexts back as far as you can stand. For the geeks in particular, consider having two and only two computer-related contexts: “@online” and “@computer-anywhere.” If you have other contextual needs, add them in with care, then periodically revisit to make sure you aren’t maintaining superfluous parts.

If you feel a gnaw about the loss of your old contexts, try to shunt some of the mental load into sub-projects and better verb choices in your tasks. Where you once had (as I did) an “@print” context, consider whether an “@computer” task of “Print Jim’s email” might be sufficient for the job. Remember, maintaining fewer buckets is always a good thing.

As you doubtless have learned, this is ultimately all about choosing valuable work and then tracking it as simply as possible via carefully-worded task reminders. No amount of meta-crap can magically transform junk tasks into stuff you really want or need to do. Contexts can help shape your day, but they’re less than useful if they don’t track realistically to the demands of your work.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
What would you ask David Allen? | 43 Folders's picture

[...] It mightn’t surprise you...

[…] It mightn’t surprise you to know I’d want to learn a bit more implementation and about how David sees contexts working best for people whose work mostly happens in one place (recently). […]

scottp's picture

I've started using virtual desktops...

I’ve started using virtual desktops to help focus my contexts. For example, my “mail” desktop has all my inboxes: mail, RSS, news, etc. I find this helps to make me focus on processing my new mail and then getting away from it entirely (out of sight, out of mind) so I’m not hitting refresh all day. Right now my “code” desktop has my text editor and some documentation open. Firefox lives there too (web developer extensions), but Safari is on my “browsing” desktop. When I move between desktops, I can actually feel like I’m switching contexts.

Peter Risser's picture

I have 3 contexts. ...

I have 3 contexts. Work, Home and Errands. I suppose there’s a hidden 4th (Work/Home) where I can basically do it in either place. These are constrained, as Merlin mentioned, by physicality & rules (for example, I could physically file Magic: the Gathering cards at work, but it’s, uh, frowned upon).

For waiting, I tag a “Waiting for …” task with a date (the equivalent of putting it in a tickle folder) and it disappears until said day.

I find it’s simple and very useful. I mean, I know whether a task involves me searching the web or writing an email. Tagging it as such is redundant.


Terrence's picture

Another great post Merlin. Your...

Another great post Merlin. Your ability to clearly communicate what we all know we should know is great. Keep it up!

I have too many contexts and have fallen off the wagon in a big way due to the ensuing where-the-hell-do-I-put-this-itis. Thanks to all for inspiring me to dust myself off an kick some ass again.

For those interested in a way to easily mix place, effort and time for any given task, check out MyLifeOrganized. They have a really nice way to do exactly this without maintaining separate contexts. You essentially move sliders and a score is computed, then you can view by time needed, place you’re in or effort available. It’s a Windows app, but I run it under Parallels. Lightweight enough to be self-contained on a USB key.

Rod Greenshields's picture

These have been working quite...

These have been working quite well for me:

Work contexts:

1) @PC 2) @Telephone [Although most calls are made from my desktop, I find value in a separate phone context, if only because of the momentum created by making that first call. It’s a different mindset for me, and I can blow through a list in short order… once I make that first call.] 3) @Office [This encourages me to live away from my computer upon occasion. For example, it’s refreshing to brainstorm ideas on paper instead of continually basking in the phosporescent glow of the one-eyed beast. My eyes thank me, too.] 4) @Waiting For 5) @Agendas [The specific people vary by project cycles. I typically have 3-6 at any given time.]

Home Contexts:

1) @Home 2) @PC - Home 3) @House/Auto [This is for home improvement and auto maintenance. Even though this stuff is technically at home, it typically requires a different context such as putting on grubby clothes and going outside.] 4) @Waiting For 5) @Agendas 6) @Errands

And I do it all using some Word-based 3x5 card templates I ginned up after being inspired by reading Emory’s compelling white paper a few months ago. (The HipsterPDA templates were a bit too cluttered for my taste.)

Emory’s paper: http://kvet.ch/pages/gtd-whitepaper-emory

Podophile's picture

I'm a writer working at...

I’m a writer working at home, so @computer, @phone, @home never really worked for me. Instead, I’ve matched my contexts to the way I structure my workday. The morning, from 8am - noon is for writing and editing. The afternoon, from 1 - 5 is for research, reading, email, website maintenance, etc. The evening is for entertainment and housework.

So on my @morning list, I have: - Stories I can start drafting - Drafts that need editing

My @afternoon list may contain: - Research that needs to get done - Phone calls to make - Email to send - Photos to take - Website maintenance issues - My “to read” file

My evenings are pretty unstructured, but my @evening list may contain: - Household chores - Adding movies to Netflix cue - Potentially long personal phone calls

My only other context is @errands, which is basically a shopping list, which I do either on my lunch break or in the evenings, as needed.

So far, this system has helped to keep my workday structured, which is never easy when your at home sitting in front of a computer with a high-speed connection all day.

BMEguy's picture

For people who have very...

For people who have very few physical contexts (work or home, computer or non-computer) but want to take advantage of the advantages that contexts offer, we can overlay time and energy constraints (contexts.) This is in line with the natural planning method’s “4 criteria.”

So now items would have multiple, but non-overlapping, contexts.

Location -work -computer -out

Time -short (greater than 2 min, less than 15) -med (15 min - 1 hr) -long (greater than an hour)

Energy -high (I can do anything) -med (I can do anything which isn’t too taxing) -low (I can barely stay awake)

So now an item might have a contexts:

Process today’s email: @computer med low Outline report: @desk (i.e. computer plus materials) long high

Obviously, generating and managing context lists of multiple, orthogonal contexts isn’t going to be very practical by hand. This type of system would best be served by some sort of computer automation (I’m trying to get it done using Mori notebook.) With the right tool, I think it could be pretty powerful. For example, you could be sitting at your computer having just finished preparing for a big meeting in 20 min: “Ok, I’ve got a lot of energy (latent anxiety for the upcoming presentation) but not a lot of time: computer high short.” It would most likely be suited by smart folders or dynamically generated lists, like the filtered lists of many media database programs.

Mark's picture

My only contexts are: @pc @work @home @phone @car I'm a...

My only contexts are:

@pc @work @home @phone @car

I’m a project manager for ICT “stuff” and I always, but always ask the question “what is the next physical action to be done?”. I know it’s ‘by the book’, but it works for me. Just 4 contexts provide me with the focus I need. I balance this with @agenda.

Hope this helps someone

Alex's picture

I'm a graduate student in...

I’m a graduate student in mechanical engineering. I have ADD and I’ve found that making contexts based on what kind of thinking I need to do really helps with that (ADD people are notoriously bad at changing gears). For example, I think differently when I’m doing math homework on paper versus doing a math programming assignment versus writing code for my research, so those would each be seperate contexts. I still keep my context list to around 10 contexts; any more than that, and it’s useless.

Rondolino's picture

As a small-scale IT projects...

As a small-scale IT projects manager I think I have an overly complicated system. These are my current contexts, naturally subject to change:

@Write (PIDs, Reports etc, stuff that never gets done if I am honest) @Interanet (sic) (Some of my work applications are web-based) @Agenda (meetings at work as well as stuff to talk to my family or the builder) @Phone @Email @Errands This gives me 6 columns of contexts on my a4 book, wide enough for mini post-its which I use to handle my next actions.

Each post-it has three sections:

About Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who started the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today. Also? He looks like this, answers questions, and has something like a life.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written recently is a short essay called, “Better.”


An Oblique Strategy:
Not building a wall; making a brick


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed

Inbox Zero

The original 43 Folders series looking at the skills, tools, and attitude needed to empty your email inbox — and then keep it that way. Don’t miss the free video of Merlin’s Inbox Zero presentation.

Making Time

3-part series on attention management for artists and makers. Read Bad Correspondence, The Job You Think You Have, and One Clear Line.