Revisiting Context Organization in Omnifocus

Contexts seem to be a point of contention when it comes to any GTD system. How many should you have? What should they be? How many is too many? A quick look at the countless methods being discussed in the Omnifocus Forums show that there is no single right way for picking contexts, and when you consider the possibility of a task having multiple contexts (not currently possible in Omnifocus), it gets more complicated. The age old answer of “It depends” truly applies here. That being said, a few things stand out for me when I look at those long lists of contexts that people have.

Don’t try to do too much with Contexts

In its purest form, a context is a tool or location. II need to be at home in order to clean the shower in my bathroom, so “home” is a great example of a context. No matter how much I wish it were true, there’s simply no way I could get my shower cleaned while I’m at work. The problems tend to creep in when you start to factor in other things like energy levels, time available, or urgency.

On paper it makes sense to define these various lists to drill down to what you can work on at any given moment, but if you use something as powerful as Omnifocus, there are more options available to you for this than just contexts. There are due dates and flags to indicate urgency or importance and durations to indicate quick wins or when you’re looking for something to do during a set period of time. Prefixing tasks with a “mindset” such as “READ:” or “WATCH:” can also help you define your tasks by mode as well.

Don’t think to Granularly

When I first started implementing GTD, I thought I needed an incredibly complex list of contexts. I had geo-tagged sub-contexts for each of the stores I visited, contexts for every person I regularly talked to, and even contexts for every room in my house. Much like the trend towards fewer folders when managing email, I quickly learned that the cost of managing a lot of sub-contexts can be* far greater than the benefits especially if the contexts only contain a small handful of tasks.

*Notice I said can be. Sometimes granularity does help as is the case with my Grocery Store context discussed later.

Adding a prefix to a task can also really come in handy here. Instead of having a sub-context for a friend, consider putting their name before the task (e.g. Boss’s Name: Discuss Office Layout). You can still easily drill down to all tasks involving your boss by searching his or her name, but you won’t need to worry about a lengthy list of contexts. I do this with stores now as well.

Regularly Review and Adjust

In the paper planning world, reconfiguring your system is seen as “Planner Fail”. It’s frowned upon, probably because it takes so long to recopy everything. The beauty of software like Omnifocus is that there’s no need to recopy everything over if you need to make a change. Contexts and projects can be created, removed, or rearranged just as quickly as your life changes. While I’ve distilled my contexts lists down over the years, I still regularly consider making changes. In fact, I just got rid of two contexts today that were being used sparingly.

My Contexts

  • Do – Some tasks can truly be done anywhere
  • Campus – For work or graduate school related tasks that require me to be on campus
  • Home – For things that need to be done at home
    • Arriving – This is a geotagged context to alert me of anything I need to be reminded of when getting home (e.g. bring that item that’s been sitting in my trunk in with me)
  • People – Anything I need to discuss with a person at a later date.
  • Errands – All things I need to do when I’m out and about.
    • Shopping – Anything I need to buy.
      • Grocery Store – Anything I need to buy specifically at the grocery store.
        • Sub-contexts for each aisles – Subcontexts, in this case, allow me to keep my custom grocery perspective organized based on the layout of the store I shop at. For a more detailed explanation, I wrote about it here: Creating a Smart Grocery List in Omnifocus
  • Waiting – Any tasks that are part of active projects but are waiting on something or someone else before they can be completed.
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2 thoughts on “Revisiting Context Organization in Omnifocus

  1. John says:

    Great reminder to keep the contexts list simple. I deleted a few of my own after reading this. Would be interested to see an updated post on the perspectives you use and your daily workflow. Great blog!

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