GTD Contexts and Academic Work

One of the central concepts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology is that your lists of next actions should be organized by context. The most basic context of an action is the physical setting or tools required to perform the action. So, tasks that can only be performed at the office would go on the @Office list; errands to be run on @Errands; or calls on an @Calls list. (Allen’s book suggests prefixing the @ symbol to your action lists if you use digital list keepers (folders in your email, memos on your PDA or phone) as it will bump them to the top of an alphabetical list and make the physical context aspect of the list obvious to you every time you use it.)

Choosing your context lists depends upon the kinds of actions you frequently do, and the structures of your life. If you don’t make a lot of phone calls, then you might not need an @Calls list, preferring to take care of them as part of either @Home or @Work. If you do make a lot of calls and want to bundle them together when you are in situations that allow for easy use of your phone, then @Calls might work for you.

The use of context-dependent action lists is one of the most useful features of the GTD approach because it forces you to consider in a very concrete way what, exactly, you will need in order to complete the action you’re putting on your list: a phone? an internet connection? another person? a microfilm reader in the library?

Of course, in the (9?) years since GTD first was unleashed upon the world, we’ve continually developed more and more ways to stay connected and to make almost any task potentially mobile. But just because you could make a given context work for a group of actions, doesn’t mean that you should. Many of us are rarely without a phone, for example — but even so, the noise level of your environment, your companions, or your mental state are not always conducive to sitting down and working through a list of calls you have to make. Because technology makes the boundaries between work and life more fluid, you have to make more decisions about setting them for yourself.

There are basically two main kinds of contexts: those that are structurally imposed and those you create yourself. If you are required to be in your office at certain times of the week, then you can only work on actions that can be pursued within that context. That’s the easy part. But while you’re there, depending on the categories that make sense for you, you might be working through actions on @Office, @Online, or @Teaching. (I know, I know, many Profhacker folks are always online, so the idea of an @Online category makes no sense to you. But if you spend a lot of time in a car, in a library without wifi, or (gasp!) unplugged, then it might.)

Categories like @Teaching or @Writing modify Allen’s original discussion of context, because they’re not physical or tool-based environments. (GTD purists might want shield their delicate sensibilities at this point.) But they can be very helpful in tracking actions that you can and do actually pursue from multiple physical locations. For example, I grade both from home and while I’m at my office. Keeping an @Teaching list of all of my grading and prep tasks helps me keep track of what I need to do, but it’s up to me to decide when I’m working from home whether I want to be focusing on @Teaching or @Writing.

And that’s where it can get a little muddy. The beauty of the pure GTD system is that it helps simplify the decisions you have to make at any given moment about what to do next. If you’re working in an business environment in which your day is partly or largely scheduled by or around other people, and/or in which your contexts are determined by your job requirements, then the division between @Work and @Home is very clear. But many academics work from home, and much of our work (in the humanities anyway) can be done in a variety of locations: office, home, coffeeshop, etc.

What has helped me is to set in place some guidelines that limit some tasks to particular contexts: I will only work on administrative tasks (faculty reports, committee memos, etc) in my office; I prepare teaching notes in my office; and any serious writing for my research takes place at home or at a coffeeshop. The first is an attempt to quarantine the less exciting tasks of my job; the second is because I store my teaching materials at the office, and since I teach on campus, it makes sense to bundle the prep with my teaching days; and the third guideline is based on knowing where I focus best for writing.

In short: just because you could work on any of your many responsibilities almost anywhere, that doesn’t mean you should. But only you can decide how to divide things up.

See also: Nels’s Introduction to GTD.

(CC licensed image from flickr user Aine D)

How have GTD contexts helped you to be productive? How do you match your tasks to your location? or not? Let us know in the comments!

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