Using OmniFocus with zero or minimum contexts?

Does anyone use this approach?

In the past I was using contexts a lot, especially for small tasks, like I had 20 emails to write: the tasks landed in my context Email, and after that I was knocking down @Computer context.

That changed this year and now I have longer assignments. I found that I’m spending additional time on assigning contexts, where later I’m not using them.
I just open the project and go thru the most important stuff. Due, flagged, etc.

I would say my use of GTD is much simpler now, the only struggle I have is to plan ahead efficiently, but that’s not the issue here. I even don’t use the location based contexts. My life simplified as a result of a lot of work.

Has anyone been in the same situation? I’m asking because maybe there is another use of contexts, which hasn’t been approached by me yet.

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I’ve tried it, but there are frustrations. Namely, like 75% of the perspectives functionality is only available in context-based modes.

what was your approach and reason?

You could try using contexts for energy levels, as described here. I’ve been meaning to give it a try, but apparently that’s a high-energy task by itself. ;)

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I have tried that in the past. It was a waste and trying to micro manage, instead of chopping big blocks of work.
At the end of the day, I prefer to push myself, work little harder, and have more free time on weekends.

I was thinking to do specific blocks of time. I might test it soon.
Like contexts will be in bins, which will indicate time. I know there are perspectives to do that, but perspectives view won’t do time between 60 and 90 minutes. Context “60-90” would.

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My set up is as follows:

  • I have NO tool-based contexts, such as computer, phone, internet, browser, email … I no longer find that such things are useful to define my work-flow.

  • I tried energy-based contexts. They also proved short-lived for my work flow.

  • I have a top-level “Someday” context that has sub-contexts of bills and dreams.

  • I have location based contexts because I have stuff that absolutely can ONLY be done specific places, such as house, office, or errands.

  • I have people-based sub-contexts in a “Waiting On” top-level. For example, Waiting On -> Spouse, Waiting On -> Staff, Waiting On -> Colleague …

I activate/deactivate selections within the last two top-level sets of context (Location and Waiting On) using an AppleScript that sets whether I am at work (i.e. at my office) or at play (i.e. not at work).

The one remaining top-level context that I have is a “Problem-Solving” context group shown here.

I pick from these contexts based on where a task “fits” in the bigger picture to complete a project. An example …

Paint the House (sequential)

  • Start (parallel)
    – pick paint color (define)
    – find best paint (research)
  • Assemble (parallel)
    – buy paint (errands)
    – buy brushes (errands)
  • Schedule (parallel)
    – confirm weather (research)
    – set time line (plan)
  • Paint (parallel)
    – paint the house (do)
    – paint the trim (do)
  • Tidy Up (parallel)
    – clean up the mess (tidy up)
    – put away the paint (tidy up)
    – put away the tools (tidy up)
  • take pictures of the house (do)
  • Complete (parallel)
    – send pictures to family (deliver)
    – put away records in file cabinet (close)

The useful thing for me about the arrangement of contexts is the arrangement in my Next Action list. They are set in the Problem Solving based scheme to show actions that can be picked to end a project as the top-most, and actions that I should just consider as the bottom-most. That gives me a “priority-matrix” for example first to end ongoing projects (close) before I even start something new (consider). It also reminds me a bit of “why” I put a given task in a certain list (e.g. because I have to “tidy up” something in project XYZ to move it forward).

WRT your starting post, I can say, this approach with contexts helps me in the “plan ahead more efficiently” category. It forces me to break a project down in to well-recognized “chunks”. I rarely make a project now that does include at least one “define” step, at least one “do” step, and at least one “close” step. I often think about whether the project will be “reporting” a result. Before I set “do” steps, I think about whether I have enough “defined”, “researched”, and “planned” to really “do”. In some respects, this approach is equivalent is to what I teach to my science and engineering students. Before you even pick up your calculator to get any numbers (… before you “do” anything …), you absolutely must convince me unambiguously, the problem you have before you truly can be solved (… you must “define” the problem, “research” the information needed to complete it, and “plan” the method that must be used to solve it).

  1. That’s a great thinking and a great approach to planning, problem solving and actual doing.

  2. How did you add these icons near the contexts?

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Use Special Characters under the Edit menu.



Damn, I’d never known about that feature. Thanks. It’s even in OF1, which I recently upgraded to from OF2.

The nice thing is, the icons translate to the iOS platforms. They give a very effective, quick visual cue.

OS X 10.7+ has added these emoji icons as special characters, they work in every Mac app. I use them for iBooks collection names too.

Anyway, that is another great idea for using contexts @DrJJWMac!! Thanks :)

I’m not 100% clear on how do you use it.

  1. Do you just use the perspective “Waiting”?
  2. How do you activate it? Shortcut? Click?
  3. I don’t understand how does it work. If you’d explain, I’m sure many other users also will appreciate that.


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I have a context list for waiting on. It has no name, just the symbol @📫. Here is a snapshot of that context list with some editing done to protect the innocent ;-)

I have a custom perspective called Waiting On. It shows the available tasks ONLY in the context @📫.

I have a command shortcut control-W to open the custom perspective in a new window.

Finally, I have a home-rolled AppleScript that toggles states for Work or Personal. The AppleScript basically puts the sets (Work + Students) -> on hold and the Personal -> active when I am not at work, and vica-versa otherwise. As it turns out, I use that AppleScript far less often than I originally did.



Could you give an example project of the Personal context?
It seems like I use projects in a very similar way, you use contexts.
Once I’d see your approach, it would be easier to respond with my example and ask more concrete question.

Here is an example …

Master Bath Remodel (folder)

  • Master Bath Medicine Cabinet (sequential project)
  • decide on cabinet style (context: waiting on > personsal > spouse)
  • order cabinet (context: do)
  • get cabinet (context: waiting on > personal > servicer)
  • install cabinet (context: waiting on > personal > servicer)
  • confirm cabinet installation is to specs (context: close)


What is the difference for you between @contexts:
Consider, Define, Research, Plan, Do, Tidy up, Deliver, Close

It seems, that each of these could be “Do.” Each of them is an actionable task with its distinct value of effort and tools/resources/time needed to finish it.

Doing a home makeover is a good example, but a very common in your explanation and it’s hard to relate it elsewhere than a house repair or a bathroom rebuild.

Here, I need to sell a laptop on eBay.
How would you “context” the tasks under the project (bolded)?

Sell the laptop
Check prices and determine the approach
Clean and prepare the laptop
Email to Luis to borrow the camera
Make pictures of the laptop
Post the listing on eBay
Pack the laptop ▸ Ready for shipping
Ship the laptop
Left the feedback for the buyer
Write a thank you note to the buyer
Message the buyer and check if everything is fine with the laptop

I thought I got the idea, but here I see I haven’t.

Perhaps something like this …

###Sell Laptop (project, sequential)

  • Setup (parallel)
  • decide approach (propose)
  • confirm price range (research)
  • prep laptop (do)
  • Prep Listing (sequential)
  • email Luis to borrow camera (do)
  • get camera from Luis (waiting on > Luis)
  • take pictures of laptop (do)
  • complete draft listing off-line (close)
  • Sell (sequential)
  • post listing on eBay (do)
  • get acceptable offer (waiting on > someone)
  • finalize sales contract (close)
  • Ship (sequential)
  • pack laptop (tidy up)
  • ship laptop (deliver)
  • get confirmation of delivery (waiting on > UPS)
  • End (parallel)
  • record feedback for buyer (close)
  • confirm buyer is satisfied (close)

I break this down in “logical chunks” or “milestones” so that I can do one group at a time rather than being oft-overwhelmed by an extensively long list. In this way, I can also set due or defer dates on action groups inside the project as needed.


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So what is your purpose of Contexts? It seems that without contexts you’d be able to do exactly the same.

@close is the same as @do:
email to Louis (@do) vs finalize sales contract (@close)
Same tool to use (computer/email), same amount of time.

I know everyone has his/her own approach, but why wouldn’t be easier and quicker for you, to have all these in @email?

The same with pack laptop (@tidy up) vs prep laptop (@do). Since both of these can be done only at home (for example; in my case at least), why not just to have @home?

You have 1 major project to sell a laptop, with 5 projects and 2-4 tasks each, with the total of 15 tasks, to sell a laptop. 1 laptop, 15 steps to sell it. 15 checkmarks or more.

Wouldn’t this be simpler? And why?

Sell Laptop (Project, Sequential)

  1. Check prices and decide approach (@research)
    I will know the approach immediately after I will see the prices and how other sellers sold a similar item.
  2. Clean and prepare the laptop (@home)
  3. Email Louis to borrow the camera to schedule the pickup (@email)
  4. Pick up the camera from Louis (@driving)
  5. Take pictures of the camera (@home)
  6. Post the listing on eBay (@computer)
  7. Pack the laptop for shipping (@home) [assuming I have all the materials necessary]
  8. Print the labels (@home)
  9. a) Ship the laptop ▸ USPS (@driving)
    b) Drop off the camera at Lois’ house (@driving)
    Why to do something twice, if this can be accomplished as a one errand
  10. Message to the buyer (@email)
  11. Leave the feedback (@computer)
  12. Follow up with the buyer (@email)

So maybe only 2-3 less steps, but considering I could “bulk” them by context, it takes a significant less, especially with contexts like @driving,
• because on my way to Louis to pick up the camera (1)
• I could replace the battery in my car (2)
• and pick up a prescription, since the pharmacy is on my way back home (3)
• but wait a second, since I’m going to a pharmacy at HEB, why not to buy some vegetables I’m running short with? (4)
• it would be also a good idea to fill the tank, which is ¼ now, and since everything is so close and context @driving makes it easy, to bulk it up (5)

5 tasks done with a one short swipe. You would have 5x@do which require you to jump into a car and drive, but they would be hidden among 74 other @do’s which are to@do at home, garage, garden, computer, bathroom, etc.

How do you plan all of it?

I will respond first to a few points using bullet items.

  • I do not use tool-based contexts anymore, including email, phone, computer, iPad, and whatever equivalent. I have the tools with me or I will find a substitute. So such contexts are of no use to me anymore.

  • When the list was mine and not yours, I would use this statement …
    … --> contact Luis to borrow camera (context: do)
    I would do so because perhaps I might decide to text Luis or phone Luis or even stop by to visit Luis at his house. I would prefer not to specify that I MUST email Luis. Continuing on this point, when (in the infinite future in a galaxy far far away) OmniGroup ever gets their act together to support multiple tags (contexts), I would file this in a context set (contact + Luis). Unfortunately, the kludges to invoke multiple contexts (with sub-contexts or using note fields or putting special characters in the title fields) are just too time-consuming for me to figure out in a consistent way, so I do not bother. Finally, still on this point, your example and some others that I have been finding on my own got me thinking about an additional problem-solving context called something like “inquire” or “ask about” or “query” in my list.

  • I also have location-specific contexts (work, lab, lecture …). So I fully understand the @home when the laptop can only be cleaned there and no where else.

In general, I use the problem-solving contexts in two ways. During the setup of a project, they help remind me that a project must have a start (define, research, propose), a middle (do, tidy up), and an end (deliver/report, close). Certainly, once these contexts are put in practice, the words all mean the same thing … --> do this action. But, during the setup, the distinct wording keeps me honest about why I list certain tasks in certain orders and not some other tasks or some other ordering. This may seem an easy thing in a sequence for selling a computer. Sometimes however, as a project is just being defined, it is not so clear exactly what the specific task is in the list. What is however almost always invariant is that you cannot do something until you have defined what you want to do, and you cannot or should not deliver/report about it until it is done (or nearly so).

The second way I use the problem-solving contexts is also during the implementation of my workflow. Notice in my original context picture here, the sequence of my contexts starts with close at the top and works “backward”. When I pull up my flagged tasks (in a custom Active perspective), the list is sorted by context. This means, every task that I should close shows up on top, followed by every task that I have a deliverable to make, followed by every task that requires me to tidy up … and so forth. That means, I ALWAYS see on top of my list (i.e. as the first action to handle) those tasks that not only are “doable” tasks but also are ones that will close an entire project or action group. IOW, I have a pseudo-priority ranking of my “doable” tasks.

My general reply to your new list with tools is, once you start down the path of using tool-based contexts to a great extent, you have nearly if not completely an entirely different approach to mine. A tool-based approach to contexts pins you to doing tasks based on what tool you have in your hand at the moment. My analogy of this approach taken to an extreme is, it is great when you are someone who likes to hold on to a screwdriver for four hours, tighten all of the screws in the house, and then go find the hammer for the next four hours of work. A problem-solving approach frees you to pick up the specific tool that you need for the next-available task of highest concern at that next given free moment. I have learned that I work better when I recognize that I generally carry my utility belt with me at all times anyway, so I am mostly free to tackle the next important task at hand rather than running back and forth to the toolbox every few hours.



[quote]… --> contact Luis to borrow camera (context: do)
What happens if you and Louis have established/unspoken way of doing certain things, certain way:
• In matters like that, always email and expect an email back.
• No unscheduled visits.
• Text is only for urgent matters which require an immediate answer.

I don’t want to be a pain in the butt, but aren’t sequential projects for exactly what are you explaining?

I might don’t see clearly your workflow in general. Because of lack of tags (not “by hand tags”) and multiple contexts, I have to reinvent the wheel. I have tried your approach, which has been proven working for you, but I ended up changing contexts for the same task and piling up unnecessary tasks, which I have not done in the past, even when I was going with “No Context” approach for a while.

Honestly I don’t see how does it work. Again, I think I don’t understand your workflow, which I am sure not only I would found useful, if it would be explained somewhere in details.

Really my only tool is a computer, which I have with me 95% if not 100% of the time. In my view, to @close the project, sometimes you need a computer, sometimes you need a car. These are 2 different “tools,” but I don’t see them as tools, just contexts.
If I have to @close the project, by dropping of a package at USPS, I will put that as the last task of a sequential project, with context @Errands, and while I’m dropping of the package I might swing by and knock out some other @Errands, if I have time and feel like it. I don’t see how it works with your approach.

So really I don’t have a tool based context, in my view. Some stuff can be done only on computer, some only by calling. These are my 2 only “tools.” I cannot call a company, or a university services at 11:45PM, or any person who I want to respect me, so I can use this context only when the time is appropriate. So @phone is a "@time of the day based context.

I know this whole discussion may be getting you tired JJW, but I’m trying to find something better, or maybe simplify my contexts, to help me keep up with all the projects and things which I have to do as my obligations, and it’s a lot. This is only why I’m digging so much and for so long.

Multiple contexts, even just double contexts would solve my problem. I have tried tags in the description multiple times. No success, too long to process, not worth.
I have tried many ways from the Simplicitybliss blog, which I think is a joke. AsianEfficiency=RepetitiveRepetitiveness, basically the same thing.
I looked up different topics etc. Nothing solves the problem. I refuse to accept that there is no approach which would suit my lifestyle.
So again, that’s why I’m digging so much.