The context quandary: 6 ways to make @computer useful again
Contexts made perfect sense as I read Getting Things Done, but the experience didn’t live up to my expectations. For edge cases like @errands1 and @agendas, they were wonderful. For the bulk of my tasks, contexts added little value. That’s because the situations where I don’t have access to a computer and the internet are as rare as rocking-horse poo. With more than 80% of my tasks landing in the @computer context, it was next to useless as a filter.
I experimented with various approaches to making the @computer context as effective as @errands. Let’s do a quick recap on contexts before I get into the detail.
TL;DR: In today’s constantly connected world, @computer holds little value for segmenting tasks. After much experimentation, I now have a useful set of contexts that replaced the traditional @computer setup. The kind of creativity needed and the level of attention required are the variables I use to group computer-based tasks. This approach delivered an unexpected benefit by gathering the work that matters most in a specific context.
A quick recap on contexts
Contexts offer a way of grouping tasks by the tool, location, person or situation that must be present before you can action the task. They look across projects to allow batching of tasks with similar characteristics. Contexts provide another dimension for breaking down long lists.
You know how paralyzing it is when you have too many options. This is why product manufacturers offer a limited choice of colors. Once you start capturing everything that has your attention, scanning the entire list to select your next action quickly becomes overwhelming. Contexts provide a means to filter out the options that are unavailable or inappropriate to act on in your current situation. If you’re out buying groceries, tasks outside of @errands (and perhaps @calls) are irrelevant. There’s no need to see them.
Good task management applications remind you of things when you need to know about them. They should also hide tasks you don’t need to consider in the current situation. Wading through a list of tasks you can’t action is a waste of energy and makes it harder to make a smart choice about what to do next.
Contexts also have an opportunistic function. An agenda context for things you need to discuss with your boss lets you retrieve all the potentially relevant topics during an unexpected meeting.
Contexts as constraints
I think of a task’s context as the most significant constraint preventing me from starting. Common constraints include:
- availability of a tool or person;
- being in a specific location;
- having enough time to make appreciable progress;
- having sufficient physical and mental energy to tackle the task.
Mobile computers, pervasive WiFi, and sophisticated videoconferencing tools have tamed some of these constraints. Locations, tools, and access to specific people aren’t the challenges they once were. With the external limitations all but gone, internal challenges are the biggest barrier to progress. Making enough time (a priority and scheduling problem) and being able to direct appropriate attention to the task (a focus problem) are now the big constraints.
I’m not the first person to be challenged by an unwieldy @computer list. Here’s a summary of the approaches I explored along the way.
1. No contexts
Some people have ditched contexts altogether. They advocate contexts are irrelevant when a computer is the means to carry out most tasks. I still find contexts useful, perhaps even more so when all our work looks so similar.
As our work becomes less tangible and takes on a certain sameness, we need to find more nuanced ways to classify it. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn’t the right answer.
Eliminating contexts wasn’t something I considered. Splitting the amorphous blob of @computer tasks was my goal. Don’t read this as criticism of the approach if it’s working for you, but it oversimplifies my circumstances.
Internet connectivity is another variable people have used to split the list. For frequent travelers, @computer and @computer-offline could make sense. It’s not useful for me since I’m almost always connected.
This approach involves tagging different devices for different tasks. This can be an option if you use one computer for work and another for home, or a desktop computer and a laptop.
I experimented with @computer and @computer-mobile (phone or iPad) for a while but found the division too artificial. Most of the time it didn’t matter, though there were tasks I wouldn’t attempt unless I had a physical keyboard to work with. If we’re not there already, it won’t be long before an iPad will be a viable primary computer for many people. Increasingly capable tablets and phones makes this approach less meaningful with each passing day.
4. Tools or activities
This approach groups tasks by the specific application, by the activity, or a hybrid of these two methods. Examples are the easiest way to illustrate this idea.
- @social media
Activities are a better choice when the process involves many tools. Writing is a good example.
This approach appealed to me but the drawback I found is that it doesn’t take constraints into account. @Excelp could have some mindless data entry tasks sitting alongside a task to create a complex financial model. @Write has a mix of tasks that need sustained periods of focused attention and others I can pull off even when I’m knackered. For each task, I had to ask myself, “Is this something I have the time and energy to tackle?”. This is more work thank it seems so the search continued.
5. Time and energy
With geographical constraints rapidly disappearing, time and energy are the dominant factors. They are the basis of Sven Fechner’s context model.
This approach has become quite popular since Sven floated this idea2. His method appealed to me since it addresses the two real constraints. But I ran into some implementation problems.
- My brain interprets @FullFocus as @HardWork creating a subtle but palpable resistance to engaging with this context. This nudged me toward tasks that made me feel productive but didn’t move the ball forward.
- I don’t always notice shifts in my energy state because they change gradually. I can spin my wheels for longer than I’d like to admit before I realize the most useful thing to do is to go for a walk.
- Sometimes I’ve just got to get things done even if my energy levels are sub-optimal.
Try out Sven’s model if your contexts need a shake-up. Unfortunately it was psychologically incompatible for me.
6. Creative mode
This leaves us with the approach that I have settled on. In his book, The Productivity Habits, Ben Elijah describes contexts as specific configurations of space, time, and thought. Every task requires a certain level of availability, attention, and creativity. Ben’s context triangle model recognizes that our physical environment, our mood, our resources and other factors influence our effectiveness at engaging with tasks. The context triangle helps you establish the compatibility between situations and tasks.
Technology has (mostly) dealt with availability leaving the creativity and attention dimensions for us to play with.
Creativity can be:
- Open. Open mode demands divergent thinking to generate new possibilities. This is where we synthesize and generate ideas to create something new. It can be a loose and exploratory process with dead ends. Analog tools and an information-rich environment such as a café, library or getting outdoors can help stimulate the process. Examples include brainstorming ideas to solve a problem or writing a crappy first draft.
- Closed. Closed mode is about compiling, polishing and refining. Convergent thinking removes the unnecessary to focus on the essential. This mode is about precision and getting the little details right. This usually means digital tools and a distraction-free, bland environment can help. Examples include proofreading a final draft, comparing features to decide between options, or data entry.
Attention can be:
- Deep. Deep activities demand your full attention and longer blocks of time. This mode typically has a ramp-up time before you get into flow. Researching a new topic or planning a large project are examples. In my experience, these tasks need a block of an hour our more to make any real progress.
- Shallow. Shallow mode is for activities that need shorter blocks of time to complete (15 minutes to an hour) and aren’t so intellectually taxing. Examples include making an online purchase, compiling monthly expenses, or processing email.
These time boundaries are somewhat arbitrary and flexible, but fit the rhythm of my work. You might need to adjust them for your situation.
Combining these dimensions creates a matrix of four different contexts. Here are a few examples.
I’ve augmented Ben’s ideas by adding a context I first saw on Asian Efficiency. My @do context is for tasks that take little effort. The kind I can crank out even when I’m tired (a bit like Sven’s @braindead context). If I estimate a task will take 15 minutes or less to complete, it goes here. Tasks with longer expected durations land in either the @open:shallow or @closed:shallow context. @Do is useful when I have little blocks of time before the next appointment. It makes it easy to pick out some quick things to pick off without scanning through a longer list.
Sometimes several contexts are relevant in a particular situation. OmniFocus only permits a single context for each task but you can aggregate several contexts using custom perspectives3. The nomenclature varies, but most tools support this idea. It’s effectively a saved search that defines a set of contexts you want to see together.
Here are a few examples of custom perspectives:
- Out and about. @Errands is an obvious choice, but this perspective also includes @calls.
- Charged. This combines @open:deep and @closed:deep. The things that move the needle often need high energy and attention (the first part of the day for me).
- Drained. When I’m feeling tired and concentration isn’t at its best. This perspective shows @do, @open:shallow, and @closed:shallow.
@Computer is no longer useful for segmenting tasks in a world where we’re always connected. After trying various approaches, Ben Elijah’s context triangle model is the one that’s been most effective. If you’re not happy with your context setup, pick one of the alternatives and try it for a month. Remember, we all have different circumstances and psychological make-ups. These models are a good starting point but you’ll need to adapt them to suit your own circumstances.
Question: Are you using another approach that I haven’t covered? Let me know about your experiences by leaving a comment below.