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At my workplace, I work on multiple projects, usually at the same time. GTD seems to suggest defining contexts by what resources are available, e.g. @Desk. But if I'm at my desk, there's typically a large list of next actions available to me, spanning all projects.

It feels like I need to multiply all my contexts (@desk, @person, ...) by each project. Is that right? Or do I just need to prioritise my next action list according to the priority of each project?

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No, projects are not contexts.

A Context is defined by resources required to do actions that are in that context. For an example outdated by most people's current technology, you can't make phone calls on your @Phone context list unless you are somewhere with a telephone. A more subtle resource is time - you may choose to define one context for tasks that will take more than 30 minutes, and another for tasks that are under 30 minutes, and another for 5 minute tasks, for example.

You may choose to define your contexts in ways that make sense to you. An @Excel context may make sense if you have to separate out spreadsheet work from other tasks. Or it may be that a simple @Work is all you need, knowing that you have a computer with all the software you need and a telephone all available at once to you.

There are a couple of GTD implementation traps you may be falling into. One is that you do not need to have all of your tasks for every project in your next action lists by context. You only need one action per project, the very next action that produces a deliverable. Think of it as a bookmark that tells you where to resume work on that project.

Another possible trap is thinking you have to work down a context list before you move to a different context. You don't - with each task you complete, you make a choice about what to do next. That may be the next task on the context list, or it may be the next task for the project you are working on (even though it isn't on a context list!), or it may be changing contexts to work off a different list, or it may be something else entirely. You get to choose, GTD helps you lay out information so the choice is clear and you can make an informed choice.

The priority question is another trap, one that comes up over and over again in GTD discussions. You can't prioritize your list ahead of time, because things change too quickly. What was an A this morning might be a D this afternoon, or the other way around. You do need to understand your priorities so that when you make a choice, they inform that decision. Having an A priority on your list that takes 2 hours isn't important right now if you have 15 minutes available, and a C priority is the only thing that fits in that amount of time. But if you have 30 minutes available and a 20 minute C and two 15 minute Bs with a status meeting on the B project this afternoon, now you can make an informed decision about what to do with that time. Maybe you need a 10 minute coffee break, so you should do the C and take a break. Or you don't, so you knock off the two Bs and have something to report at the status meeting.

It's all about making smart decisions from moment to moment. GTDs contexts can help you do that by limiting the number of actions you have to look at to just the ones that could be done right now with what resources you have available. What contexts are useful is something you have to discover for yourself. Some people do quite well with @Home, @Work, and @Errand, others use a lot more detail.

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My answer is no as well, but with a my own interpretation of what projects and contexts mean to me.


A project is any work that takes more that one action to complete.


A context is a situation or place where things can get done.

  • It can be a specific place: like your car or the local dry cleaner store where you have to pick up your suit.

  • It can be a kind of a place: like a grocery store, anywhere you can pick up spinach and toothpaste. It doesn't matter if its Lucky's, Ralph's, Vons etc

  • It can be a place where resources are located: like any PC with Excel on it.

  • It can be a place as a state of mind: like when you are thinking about someday maybe or five years down the road or your mind is on money matters. This is not quite horizons of focus where all you are concerned about is scope but more like the place where your mind is at.

  • a place in the company of a particular person or persons:like when you see your spouse or your wife or a meeting with your reporting managers.

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When struggling with a definitions for a word, the word acts as a rule, and your are trying to find instances or examples that you can apply it to (concrete objects for your class, for programmers out there)

In general, a context provides additional information ('meta information') that helps bring meaning to existing information. I.e. A task of 'Slap Forehead' does not seem sensible. Add the context of @SpiderOnFace, and how to perform this task, why it is being performed, and oher nuances are now evident. This is a absurd example to show the arbitrary nature of a context. Here you'll see that the context provides explanation of a task that could be performed in multiple contexts. The same task of 'Slap Forehead' would be performed differently in the context of @HearingFacePalmWorthyComment (i hope)

Luckily, for most us, we don't find ourselves or plan for contexts like @SpiderOnFace, but more like @Work, @Bored, @CriticalMeeting etc.

For me, if I have a task for a context (e.g 'Clear all emails' in a context of @Organisation, but then I find that I have a personal and a work email, I may need to change the way I think about the context. Maybe I put the tasks in a folder called 'Organisation', and context for @Home, @Work, @Uni, etc.

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You're correct that GTD defines contexts by what resources are available and this works well I find for home tasks or for people who work in a variety of physical contexts. But for most of us who sit at a desk all day, everything would be just @desk or @computer.

In fact, the old style contexts like @phone or @computer are meaningless to me even when I am out of the office because - with my iPhone in hand and various cloud services - I always have those contexts available. (so there is no need to write them into the system).

So in that case it makes sense to define your own contexts . I have seen a variety of methods used including some of the good suggestions in the first two responses.

My own setups - I have used contexts (in a previous job) to map to "people" - ie the person I had delegated work to or the boss I was awaiting authorisation from or the client contact I needed to be present.

This is similar to David Allen's idea of @agenda-person-name where you can use a context to collect up all the items you need to discuss with someone when you next meet with them. (Searching on that context gives you the agenda for the meeting).

You asked if you need to multiply all of your contexts by each project. Essentially yes, but I would also say that you can allow yourself to not assign a context in some cases. eg if your work is all of a similar context and there are no constraining factors.

Perhaps it helps make sense of contexts if we talk about constraints rather than resources - So maybe you need to think - what are the constraining factors in getting your work done?

Some people travel a lot and so they need a context like @car or @flight for those things that they could do while travelling.

(It's interesting to note that in those cases you might want to put multiple contexts to one action because a phone call might be capable of being made on a long car journey (using hands free setup!) or in the office from your desk. Several of the GTD apps allow this multiple context tagging.

Another suggestion for contexts is "level of mental energy available". So you could have tasks like filing, simple calls, form-filling, for days when you feel a bit tired and not creative/effective say. These might be context = @easy. And then have @complex for your up-days when you are full of energy ready to tackle big tasks or difficult meetings :)

Priorities - I would definitely not use priorities in the contexts slot. In fact, I have heard David Allen speak against the use of priorities altogether - as if he does not favour the old fashioned A B C 123 style of to do list.

Personally I quite like prioritising so when I have a lot on, I take a handful of next actions for the day and prioritise them on a separate day-list so I can get focused and not be distracted by the entire next actions list. But that is strictly a disposable - for today only - kind of priority.

Recently I've changed job and as a result moved from using Outlook tasks for GTD, to experimenting with cloud services and I think I have settled on

One of the posts above mentioned "time required" as a context - this is a great idea but one of the things I like with Nozbe is that it has the option to add "time required" as a separate field in the next action - and you still have contexts on top of that.

It also has a pleasing design that allows dragging and dropping items - in both action lists and project lists - into any list order - so I can effectively prioritise things by dragging them to the top of the list - so visually they jump out at me first. I'm using this to make sure my most important projects stay at the top of the list.

This is not meant to be an advert for Nozbe but just illustrating the points about priorities , contexts, and time and that - in some systems - all these can co-exist without destroying the essence of GTD.

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