Project: Figure out Contexts Context: My Personal Hell

Project: Figure out Contexts Context: My Personal Hell


Underlying my flirtation with Things, which is ultimately doomed, is my continual frustration with contexts. I find that I can’t seem to get them right. Or I can’t seem to get them where I can actually work from them.

Part of the problem might be trying to schedule my day using a list grouped by contexts.

But I also can’t seem to figure out if a @work context should contain building a presentation for my day job and writing a blog post.

Should @house contain “rebuild garage stairs” as well as “pack lunch” and “make sure we have toilet paper”?

Or should that be divided into @house:chores and @house:packing and @house:maintenance?

I’m getting so burned out constantly thinking about getting contexts and perspectives to work. Not working from projects. All of the good word coming from Mr. Allen.

It’s enough to make me want to throw the whole system in the garbage. But it’s how I think now. Im just not very good at it!

Anyone else have issues with this? It’s incredibly cathartic to whine about it, but man I wish I could get it figured out well enough to be useful.


Contexts are a challenge for many, myself included. There is a fantastic thread on the omnifocus forums ( ) which has loads of ideas - one of them may resonate with you (the concept is the same even if you are not an omnfocus user).

I use contexts as a filtering mechanism. So for me @home and @home:15 make sense - one is where I am and another is ‘stuff I can do in 15 minutes or less’

My contexts are:

  • People (by name)
  • Places (mostly the different businesses I work in)
  • Tools (Comms / Mac /…)
  • MindSet (Faffing / Planning / Admin /…)

Plus the usual waiting, errands, etc.

I have a tickler project and tickler context for those things that I need to be reminded of.

Thinking more fully as I writhe this, I suspect that your contexts might not be the underlying problem, too much stuff available for you to chose from could be an issue (not enough deferred or on hold).

A hard review that splits stuff into just three contexts - DoNow, DoSoon, DoLater and where there are only a handful of DoNow items (have DoSoon and DoLater as ‘on hold’) might help.

Good Luck

(The Old Designer) #3

I have tried numerous different systems, at the moment what seems to work best for me is to work on time needed so I have 5, 15, 40, 60 and 60+ and just work through these depending on mood or time available.

I run through the days tasks every morning early and flag what is really important and have a separate context for flagged. I also have a communication view which shows the @communication tag, everyone I need to call, text, mail that day. Automated submissions from forms or other web services come in marked today and flagged so I do not miss them.

Lastly I do have a @waiting tag for where i am waiting for feedback from a client or my partner which shows in a separate context view

(Joe Buhlig) #4

I feel like I’ve been through every new-fangled idea with contexts and landed right back at the beginning where David Allen recommends you be: people, places, things.

The thing I’ve noticed is that I’m better off assigning a single context and only the context that is best suited for the task. If I go by assigning multiple contexts and giving it every thing that’s possible then it gets too complicated and fast. Sticking to the one that allows me to get the job done the best (from a quality stance) means that my lists are clean.

I would be inclined to intuit this as well. For me, I know that if a given context has more than 15 tasks in it, then I need to defer some things till later or move them to a someday/maybe. Either that or I need to split a context into multiple.

A Productivity Journal

To me, you plan via projects: This is what you want to achieve. All actions come from projects. One time projects or maintenance, recurring projects, single actions, whatever.

Each action whithin a project requires certain tools, people, places, energy, time of day etc to be performed. These are represented by contexts. Contexts need not be mutually exclusive, a task may need several of them available concurrently to perform a task.

At any given time, when I have time available for action, I ask myself:

¿What can I do now, given my present ‘context’ (= circumstances) to advance to my goals (my projects)

So if I am in the car, after work, downtown, with an hour to spend, I would go see list all things that I can do in this particular context(s)

And so on,

So, again, the planning process is basically project driven, and the execution can be context driven.

¿Does this make sense to you?

So in your case, to me repair the garage stairs is a project, part of which will be done at home, part of it on the phone, part of it in the store… with a certain tool, aided by a certain people etc etc. Same with house chores or house packing. These are projects, not contexts, to me anyway,

(Joe Buhlig) #6

Great points here. It’s smart to think of projects as goals. I can’t say that’s something I do explicitly. I realize it’s true but not the way I’ve thought about it.


I get into fuzzy territory when I get into things like research or grading. It could be @work, but then I’ll have grading 50 presentations on the same list as submit time sheets.

Sometimes I don’t know how best a task will happen. Sometimes planning a presentation will happen across devices, apps, notecards, whiteboards … where ever I’m taken on a whim. Not really something to plan in advance.

So I guess it could be “anywhere” or “any device” but I get creeped out by contexts that are so loose that anything could fit into them.

I’ve been toying with an action verb based setup.

For example:
Developing (course material, not coding)


(Justin DiRose) #8

I’ve been thinking the same thing. I feel like action-based contexts would help to batch tasks a little more easily in today’s world where most of the work happens on some kind of a computer and your information is available wherever.

(Joe Buhlig) #9

Question for both @justindirose and @KevinR: If you go action-verb based contexts, do you have very clear lines for when you move from one to the other? Time of day? Location? Home office with laptop and no internet? To me that’s what would make this either excel or fail.

(Justin DiRose) #10

Interestingly enough, I took some time to journal out what an action based context would be. I absolutely could not make it work. It felt all wrong and too ambiguous.

(Joe Buhlig) #11

I had a system like this for about three days. The same problem plagued me. I had to do too much mental translation to use them.


It’s a good question. Right now I’ve got those mixed in with the legacy set of contexts I’ve been using. I’m not sure it can work without more standard contexts.

It might have a similar problem with energy based contexts in that assigning contexts gets difficult.

“Well, it could be managing, but it might really be learning. Or maybe I need an informationeering context!”

I hate contexts.

(Curtis Spendlove) #13

Honesty, and I doubt this is any sort of cannon, but I struggled with contexts for a long time. I gave up on them, and I’ve been perfectly happy ever since. :slight_smile:

(Simon) #14

Simplest is best. I tend to ask myself, “what would I type six months from now if I wanted to find this?” and then tag the item with that. I also tend to use tags as a filter. I have large areas and break them down into smaller pieces. This also helps if I can’t seem to find the specific tag, I can narrow it down and so my list then becomes more manageable.

(Brad Wright) #15

On the whole @work thing, I actually settled on @computer and @office and then used the Work area of responsibility to slice my work.

Since I can do my work either my personal or work computer, it’s not relevant for me to say @work is a context - the computer is enough for me to do my work. I save @office for those very rare things where I really need to be in the office (eg to collect some equipment)