Using OF without contexts

Dear Collective Wisdom, has anyone attempted to use OF with complete disregard for contexts? After nearly five years of use on OS X and iOS, I have found the time and effort involved not to justify any benefits. Any concerns, warnings, or tips?

Hi Macula!

I have not tried it, but I´m curious why you think it´s not worth the time and how come the effort involved can´t justify the benefits. Are you meaning the time and effort of contexts?

From my experience context have helped me a lot when it comes to sort out different tasks and separate them, so that I only see what I can do in this time and this space. Regarding context I think that Sven Fechner writes well about them in this blogpost.

In my case since I use the computer for the majority of all the work I´m doing, I have separated my different jobs as contexts that are hi-level, middle level and just plain stupid :) and that works for me and I almost don´t invest any time in fiddling with my contexts.

So to be honest I find hard to see why you would like to try to structure your life without context. But OF is just a tool that everyone adjust to there life and thefts the beautiful thing with it, so I´m looking forward to hear more from you how it works :)

Kindest regards

Thanks for your good reply, Gus. I’m familiar with the blog post that you refer me to. But I still have strong reasons to believe that the overhead of contexts is not justified in my case. I do not presume to make the same recommendation to every one! I do indeed tend to use OF idiosyncratically. For example, I do not use OF at all for simple, standalone errands that I need to be reminded of at a particular place or time (e.g. buy milk). In these cases I use a more lightweight reminders app. In general, I only use OF for tasks that are, so to say, “review-worthy”—tasks, in other words, that are hierarchically connected to some larger-scale goal, project, or process. This does include routine tasks, such as bill payments but nothing more trivial than that. If I spontaneously realize that I need to return a book to the library, for instance, and need to set up a quick reminder for that, chances are that I will use a simpler app—one with faster start-up times, natural-language data entry, and generally simpler data entry. This is partly because I tend to be allergic to an OF database that is not orderly, and I despise accumulating tasks in my OF Inbox without reviewing them as soon as possible. Anything in OF that has not properly reviewed and classified feels like cruft. And, more pertinently, I have come to realize that I tend to decide what to do next by selecting (often preconsciously, I suppose), not an applicable context, but the actual project or “folder” to take on at this particular moment. When the decision is indeed context-sensitive, the only “contexts” that I end up consulting are: “flagged”, “due today (or soon)”, and “anything else”. I therefore only need a “Flagged” perspective and the Forecast view. Everything else can happily be aggregated in a lump, context-free list that I can quickly scan (and anyway, I only consult this list in the felicitous occasions when all “Flagged” and “Due Soon” events have been completed—very rarely the case).

First off I should say that I have my projects and tasks organized by Areas of Focus. For me that is Home, Work, and Volunteer. I find it easier to focus on work things at work (home office or physical office or anywhere I am working) and my Home life.

I struggled with this for a long time. I decided for a while not to use contexts except for Agenda (meeting with others), Errands, and No Context.

At the start of each day I wrote down how I decided on what to do. I learned a lot by doing this. Switching “contexts” is something I avoided. I tended to group calls together, get some of the brainless things done together at the end of the day when I am mentally exhausted.

After a week, I realized that I was grouping my todo list into these categories:

  • Full Focus (takes time to do, can’t be distracted)
  • Quick (short but can’t be distracted)
  • Mindless
  • Brainstorm/planning (this is a different mindset for me)
  • Communication (email and phone)
  • Errands
  • Agendas

Even my flagged and due today are sorted by these contexts. Using these contexts help me choose want to work on next from the flagged and due today.

Also worth mentioning, when I very first started looking into GTD I had very little on my todo list. I had a lot of work but not a variety of things to do. OF worked just fine for me. Then my responsibilities changed and the todo list grew. It still took me a while to see the benefit. It wasn’t until I became a firm believer that changing contexts, however you define context, is expensive. For me it is mindset. For others it may be tools.

Bringing everything together: I have a Due/Flagged perspective for each main area of Focus with the tasks sorted by Context. This is where I look each day to figure out how I am going to tackle the day’s work.

I hope this helps a little.

Hi Macula and Stephen!

Macula: It sounds like you have it figured out and it make sense the way you describe it. I think it´s a very interesting way to keep OF clean, by only adding the more “heavy” projects and focus on them.

How are you using the time variable for your tasks in OF? Are you selecting tasks in your no context-list by how long time you think they will take or how do you do to sort out the more important from the less, so you do not get paralyzed (in lack of better description) of all the tasks that is aggregated in the list?

Stephen: Thank you for sharing how you work with contexts. I also recognize more or less these categories, but I have more sub-contexts in them since I find it easy to sub-divide tasks and focus that way. I really like that you separate brainstorming/planning from for example full focus, could you explain more how you do to shift mindset for tasks that you need to brainstorm or plan?

I find it interesting with your due/flagged perspective for each main area, I usually use the forecast view, or one perspective called today,y where I sum all the active task I can do to this point of the day and divide different tasks by using the deferred time variable, that let me separate work tasks, from freelance tasks, from family/private projects and so on just byt adjust the deferred time to my usual workday. In the today perspective I flag seven tasks, work them from top to bottom as pomodoros, flag the next seven and so on. Even if I been quite successful getting things done using that method I have to say that I think your approach of simplifying the contexts make sense and is very interesting, so once again thank you for sharing.

Kindest regards

gazt: thanks for sharing. I don’t use the forecast view that much. I should revisit that.

I too use the Pomodoro technique in conjunction with OF. I find it very effective to keeping me on task even if I think the task very boring or something I really don’t want to be doing.

When I need to plan or brainstorm, some sort of music goes on, I typically leave my home office and move to a different area of the house sometimes outside, or go to the coffee shop. For me it is a truly different mindset. Even the thought process I use is different.

Tool wise for brainstorming: I am a HUGE fan of mindnode (IOS/OSX) when I really have no inclination of order and sky’s the limit, OmniOutliner is another favorite when I have a good idea of what needs to be done, but I also have a custom writing mode in Sublime Text which allows me to write outlines in markdown. I can move subtasks around, group them, and reorder as easy as omnioutliner.

I only have Personal, Work, Exams, Reference as my top folders.

Reference is an organized dumping ground of maybe someday lists, websites, books, tweets that I should read at one point. I follow the suggested lists from David’s book here.

Personal: Anything for my physical home, family, hobbies, volunteer (like Boy Scouts) are organized in this folder.

Work: is work.

In each of those main folders I have a project with the same name as the folder. This is the generic catch all single action list. Then of course there are the specific larger projects.

I shy away from subtasks/action groups. I don’t like how OF doesn’t show the parent task in the context view. With all the extra space in V2, there is no excuse.


Hi Stephen!

Cool, thank your for sharing.

Kindest regards

Interesting ideas and practices. @stephenll, your areas of focus make sense and sound like a neat, usable arrangement. Your sense of “context” is also very meaningful, although I still do not think that their added value in my case justifies the hassle. My original question was motivated by my memory of the tendency of “no context” tasks to slip through in OF. I vaguely recall that such tasks would sometimes not trigger alerts, or were unexpectedly invisible in certain perspectives, or something like that. But I was clearly wrong (or maybe the bugs, if any ever existed, have been ironed out in the meantime). In any case, I need to drastically streamline/downsize my contexts list. Perhaps this particular aspect of GTD—the notion that we select the next action by matching context, time, energy etc. against all available tasks—is either too rigid, or a habit that I have not managed to fully assimilate. No practice is sustainable for me in the long run unless it is organic and transparent, “non-algorithmic” as an experience. Once again, thanks to everyone for their responses.