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.

How I’m Using Contexts in Omnifocus

I’m going to preface this post, by saying that this is by no means how someone has to use contexts nor is it a permanent set up of contexts for my system. In the world of paper planners, a lot of people refer to the idea of radically changing your set up as “planner fail.” In the world of Omnifocus, I find that many people feel that tinkering with their setup is the norm. It’s not seen as failure but as improvement. Some even have dedicated Omnifocus “maintenance” or “ideas” projects and/or contexts. {I have to say, the idea that making changes isn’t because I failed, but instead learning how to make my system better has been a nice change of thinking for me.}

Today I’m going to give you an overview of how I’m using contexts in Omnifocus.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with David Allen’s GTD, the way I perceive contexts is that they basically define a certain location or thing you need to have in order for you to complete a task. For instance, if you need to call someone, you need to have access to a phone.

Now needing a phone to make a phone call seems pretty obvious, but when you add up all the things we do on a regular basis, it can get a bit more complicated. I find contexts extremely helpful for 2 reasons:

  1. Contexts help identify what I can do at any given moment. For example, it’d be pointless to try and complete a phone call if I don’t have access to a phone or I’m out at a concert late at night.
  2. Contexts help to batch tasks together. If you have 5 items to pick up at IKEA, it makes more sense to pick them up in one trip than to go five separate times. This also works for batching other tasks like phone calls or emails.

This is my current list of contexts in Omnifocus.

OF Contexts

  • House – This context is for any task that requires me to be at home to complete. I’ve broken it down further to categorize tasks that can be done in a particular place in the home
    • Outside – These are garage-related tasks or things like taking the trash out.
    • Basement – My basement is 3 floors away. I typically try and tackle as many basement tasks in one trip as possible.
    • Bedroom – Given that my bedroom functions primarily as a studio apartment, this is where the majority of my tasks happen.
  • [Campus]* – These are either work or school-related tasks that require me to be on campus. *For privacy reasons, I’ve chosen to rename this context and edited the screenshot above accordinly.
    • If I have more than a couple tasks that involve a particular colleague, I’ll add them as a sub-context. When I’m meeting with that particular person, I can quickly go to their context and see any agenda items I need to discuss.
  • Errands – This context is for tasks that require me to be out and about.
    • Shopping – This context is specifically for items on my shopping list which I’ve broken down further into:
      • IKEA – Gotta love IKEA right?
      • Online – Many of my online purchases can also be made in a store, so I’ve kept this context under Errands so that if I’m out, I can pick up items on my list rather than buying them online. {This will come in handy when I describe my Perspectives in a later post.}
  • Devices – It’s been said many times over, the idea of “email” or “internet” contexts have become somewhat obsolete with the myriad of internet connected devices we all carry around. This context is for tasks that require some sort of digital device but not necessarily a specific one. For tasks that do require a specific device I’ve added sub-contexts:
    • Phone – Phone calls do require a phone {and a reasonably quiet environment}, so does installing an iPhone app, so these get their own context.
    • Mac – While I can do most of my “digital” tasks on any device, there are some that do require a computer or I prefer to do on a computer. These tasks get assigned a Mac context.

My last two contexts are maintenance contexts. I’ve put both of these contexts on hold so that they do not show up in my active tasks:

  • Waiting for… holds my tasks that I’m waiting on someone else for. For instance, if I’m waiting for a product to come in the mail or I’m waiting for someone to reply to an email.
  • Someday/Maybe holds my tasks that I don’t plan on doing right away but may like to do in the future.

So there you have it, my Omnifocus contexts. As I said in the beginning, this list isn’t set in stone. I see my contexts as dynamic, and they constantly change. I do, however, have one rule – If I find that a context has only 1 task, I heavily consider whether it really needs to be in it’s own context. More often than not, it fits better in one of my other contexts.

If you’re struggling with contexts in GTD or how to set up Omnifocus, I hope this has helped. I’d be happy to elaborate a bit more on any of the contexts above if they weren’t clear, and while I’m not an “expert” at Omnifocus, I’m also happy to take a stab at trying to answer any questions you might have.

In my next Omnifocus post, I’ll be going over how I’ve decided to organize my projects.

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