I don't know how to think about "Contexts"

I’m currently evaluating OF, taking advantage of the 14 day trial, and while I find most of the app to be self-explanatory I confess that the notion of Contexts isn’t really clear nor do the examples help much. Or maybe I’m viewing the examples through a parochial lens, and it’s a feature that isn’t really suited for me.

I’m a landscape architect; my work is very project-oriented. Every Project has a Project Number. I’ve found the Perspectives and Focus views to be really useful, probably enough to commit to the app (after I work with the iOS version and synching).

But I don’t know how to conceptualize Contexts. How do ‘email’ or ‘device’ help me? Am I looking for items that projects have in common- like for instance, printing? Or like for instance- what?

The feature seems powerful but I’m not getting it.

I think in order to understand OmniFocus, understanding GTD is super-helpful first.

As a start, though, Contexts are limiters on what tasks can be done. These might include limiters such as:

  • Location (things you can only do when in a certain place, such as at a site or office or store)
  • Tools (things you can only do with certain tools, such as with a computer or phone or appliance)
  • People (things you can only do when with someone else, such as with boss or spouse or peer)
  • Energy (things you can only do when at peak performance or things you can do with very low energy)

The idea is that Contexts help you prioritize work by eliminating options (i.e. you can’t mow your lawn when you’re in an airplane, you can’t make calls without a phone, etc.) and focusing in on available tasks at hand.




The concept of ‘Contexts’ has always been (and probably always will be) on e of the most debated and discussed topics on this forum… search for it and you’ll find numerous threads, which are worth reading if only to get a sense of how many different ways there are ti implement Contexts - including the option of not implementing Contexts at all!

Probably as many ways as there are OF users.

It originates as part of the methodology of Getting Things Done ( GTD).

Essentially, a definition with which I think most people would agree is that Contexts describe the conditions, tools, circumstances - best, perhaps, the resources - which you need in order to complete a task.

These could be: the distinction between work and home. In your case, perhaps, between paying client or pro bono? The necessary tools, materials (Is this a gravel and sand job, or grass and seedlings?) Is the context one in which you have to travel to the East or to the West of your HQ? Must the work take place in dry weather, or can (parts of) it be completed indoors?

The purpose behind Contexts is to minimize effort - so in the examples above (and, nb, it really is OK to make up, adapt, ignore and combine your own (custom) Contexts) you’d want to try and organize your week with the fewest number of trips to the suppliers and/or group together as much work as possible which needed outside help; or which did not rely on the completion of printed plans etc.

Good practice, BTW, is never to create or try and use a Context just for the sake of it - a perhaps inevitable trap into which I’d wager a majority of users here has fallen at one time or another :-)

Good luck - and don’t be afraid to experiment. Let us know how it works for you, please!


A good question to ask is what you want to get out of OmniFocus. In other words, complete the following sentence for all of the various use cases: “I want OmniFocus to show me a list of…”.

For example, “I want OmniFocus to show me a list of”:

  • actions that I need to complete by the end of the day
  • actions that I need to be physically at the office to complete
  • actions that are best done when I’m in a high-energy state
  • everything that I’m waiting for related to project x
  • important phone calls

Use whatever contexts (combined with due dates, flags, etc.) that you need to be able to create these filtered lists of actions.


Tim, Scotty, and Mark,

The one thing that I do NOT want is a system that requires fiddling or incessant input into a variety of categories - unless the ‘output’ far outweighs the overhead of ‘input’.

I’ll explain in the hope that it will help others.

Here’s my story (some of which is off topic, but does relate to Omni software):

Recognizing that I some sort of electronic approach to a ToDo list could bring benefits, decades ago I built a fairly sophisticated FileMaker Pro solution. Constantly updated, this worked well, as far as it went, and had the advantage of linkage with my Memo/Address/Proposal files, also built with FileMaker Pro; I’ve been using these for more than 20 years. Importantly, by using FileMaker Pro I can tinker under the hood.

But I realized, especially lately, that to get some features I could really use, including better calendar management, I’d need to invest more time in my own home-brew solutions than I was willing to spend.

This would require quite a bit of under the hood programming and scripting. More time intensive would be the thinking about how such a program should work, and how I could interact with it. These are complicated subjects that are well understood by professionals. I am more like a dilettante.

So, I started looking around, first at simple lists for iOS (I liked Gruber’s approach, limited as it was). I quickly realized I needed a seamless, multi-platform solution.

I have always admired OmniGroup - the look of the Omni apps, the attitude on the website, the straightforward approach - but I also recognized that it’s an entire ecosystem that wouldn’t play well with my FileMaker Pro system, so have stayed away.

OTOH, syncing my FileMaker Pro files (desktop/ iOS) is decidedly a PITA- FileMaker Pro has not solved this problem in any useful way. It was the offer of free, seamless syncing from Omni that made me look more closely.

At the same time, I was looking for two other pieces of software that Omni also publishes: an outliner and a project manager. I’ve been using Scrivener for my book on tropical plants, and wondered if a dedicated outliner could help get me over the doldrums. But the more I looked at OO, and the more I looked at Scrivener’s abilities, I realized I’m better off staying with Scrivener.

I also landed some very complicated projects. Landscape architects are designers, not contractors (think architecture), with all of the attendant issues of data collection and design development, along with resource management. I hadn’t used a project manager since MacProject, the main problem of which was the inability to assign multiple tasks to the same resource.

But then I realized that, at least on a ‘first cut’ level, OmniFocus can answer some of the questions that OP addresses; and it does this, at least in part, through Contexts. So for now I’ve put OP aside, decided to go forward with OF.

One thing I’ve learned over 30+ years of design practice and with using computers is that it takes time to shake things out, and new apps are no exceptions. I expect to ‘grow into’ the ‘Context’ concept, at some point. My main issue is mental: using OF where I would have depended on Calendar.

That’s it, except for this: As a designer I would love to have been part of the OmniGroup’s design discussions regarding Contexts; to hear the idea proposed, debated, ideas for use given and debated. Design is all about process.

I totally agree. In this regard, I think David Allen’s process for GTD is the better element to study rather than Omni’s expression of it in tools, since it respects that process so cleanly.

I also agree that fiddling is a terrible trap, and have no interest in it, either. Some degree of re-organizing and re-defining my work is a necessary part of my weekly review, but not tinkering with contexts or folder structure.

For inspiration, this thread has some really excellent ideas and sharing in it.

Aside: @timstringer, that’s an excellent way of thinking about context - what are the outcomes I want as part of my system design. Great stuff.


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I use contexts to limit my actions to things I can do or that make more sense to do together.

So for example I am currently running with 37 different contexts. I have 260 active projects and 299 available actions.

I have contexts for places (Red Barn, Shop, Little House, Local Town, Further Away City, West Pasture) etc. I also have contexts for services (QuickBooks On-Line, Computer Internet) I have contexts for tools where that is the only tool I can use for that task (iPhone, iMac) I have contexts for people I need to discuss things with (Husband, Veterinarian, Stepfather) I have context for major applications I use (LambTracker, Lightroom & Photoshop, GrassRoots, Scrivener, Libre Office, DEVONThink) and I have contexts for time related issues (Phone and Phone Business Hours)

I have found that no matter the project it’s more efficient for me to do all the work in say, Scrivener that, I can before switching to something else. Similarly when I am in the Shop building it only makes sense to do everything that I can there before walking to another physical location. We have stores that are only in the city, I stack up what stores we need to go to so that on the once a month shopping trip I know to get to all of them and I have a list of what I need at each store. (Our major shopping place is a 75 mile 1 way trip from the farm.)

When I am reviewing what I need to do it is very helpful to eliminate as many choices as I can so I can focus on what I can do. Phone call can be made most anytime but business hours mean I have to do it during regular business hours. If I have a phone call but need something else to refer to, like a file or piece of paper, that is the critical item so it would go on a list by context for the computer that has the file (Misc Mac) or if it’s paper into the context, Desk. I always have my phone with me but it’s not always a good time to make calls so why see them when I am looking for my next task? I usually make calls when I’m standing around in the pasture watching for lambing sheep or filling water tanks so I am not near any other reference materials hence my need to be very careful about what I put in my phone contexts.

It took me about a year to fully grok contexts. Now I create, use and delete them as necessary as my workload and needs change.