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Contexts: The Fivefold Way Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes
Maybe an overly dramatic name but it fits the concept I'm working on.

The interesting thing about contexts is that GTD is primarily focused towards knowledge work, but contexts are supposed to be stubbornly physical triggers, like a phone, place or person. While this approach makes wonderful sense for a somewhat mobile worker, say a CEO or a salesperson, its more difficult for the less mobile creative worker, such as the independent software developer, artist or writer, who has fewer required physical resources. Many posts here and around the net highlight the difficulty many people have with it, including myself as a software developer.

So I've been working with contexts, trying to make them crisp and useful. A difficulty is that the physical triggers aren't so clear. Yes there are some things best done on the couch, some at the desk, but with the couch a few meters away from the desk it seems a little artificial, not counting the fact that sometimes the couch is the dinner table.

So to cut a long story short, what I did is just to observe myself looking for 'cow paths', which is the path I took with tasks during the day, and what became clear is that there are five phases/contexts for most of my creative tasks. Most tasks of significance go through all five, others get booted out at one or another point, either because they're completed, or because they get dropped or put on hold. Furthermore there turn out to be five important triggers associated with each context. These triggers are important to understand, because deciding where a task goes sometimes depends on one or another.

Without more ado here's what I'm talking about for my situation (having trouble getting it to pretty print so a PNG is attached)

The Fivefold Way	Physical	Location	Phase	Mental/Energy	Time
- [ ] Blue	iPhone	Any	Concept	Ad Hoc	Minute
	Blue sky
- [ ] Yellow	iPad	Couch	Planning	Idle	Idle
	Yellow Field
- [ ] Orange	Laptop	Writing desk	Design	Focused	Chunk
	Orange sunrise
- [ ] Red	Desktop	Computer desk	Implementation	Concentrated	Block
	Hot Fire
- [ ] Green	Any	Any	Test	Resting	Down
	Peaceful lake
  • The Context is the color - Blue, Yellow etc. Since the context trigger can be any of the elements in the table it makes sense to have this be both agnostic and indicative.
  • The subtext ('Blue Sky') is a mental image associated with the context, helps to 'go to that creative space'
  • The triggers are typical triggers, the 'Couch' could be the 'Dinner Table', but the meaning should be clear.
  • Any of these triggers can trigger the relevant context for tasks. For instance, I have some Idle time - check Yellow for tasks. Or I'm at the writing desk - thats a trigger for Orange.
  • Creative tasks move through these contexts as they evolve, most of the time they start in Blue (idea/light bulb) to start, once I've gotten all the brainstorming down later I'll change it to Yellow for planning. If it passes there it changes to design/Yellow (else it gets dropped or put in the On Hold context) and so on.
  • Some tasks (typically single shot) just end up somewhere. Like 'Pay online bill' just goes to Yellow, because I just need some Idle time to do it (so these aren't exclusively creative tasks).
  • Thus these triggers also help with quickly classifying tasks (putting them into their contexts), a necessary ingredient to keep the task management to a minimum. They help because some tasks relate better to one trigger over another.
  • The phase is just a fact of how my tasks age and mature, but it also indicates and helps with project management.
  • A cognition aspect of context is that they help put you in the right place to most efficiently accomplish a task, so this table helps out with that. For example, if I find myself with a chunk of time to use, I'll 'pull in' the other triggers to help, such as putting myself in 'Focused' frame of mind also.
  • Finally, if some aspect of all these triggers isn't present, I'll recognize that it's maybe better to try a different context. For instance - I have a Chunk of time, but I'm tired and not Focused, well see if I can get something done in Yellow instead.
  • Obviously these should be adapted for personal use. The equipment may be different, or the names (Orange, Red - just something that has a strong meaning for you), and the locations. Maybe you have the same equipment for each phase.
  • Another benefit is that the Contexts imply a vertical order. Blue has the most elements, and most Tasks start out there. Many of them get booted directly out of this too. Tasks up the chain are generally more important, items in the 'Red' are usually pretty important (bugs or features that are in implementation). So in a sense it's a filtering mechanism, everything comes into the Inbox, most make it to the Blue pretty quickly, then up the chain as they pass muster and develop.
  • Having tasks change context (instead of creating different tasks) splits up a task wonderfully. For example, I drop "Get a dog?" into the Inbox. Later I move it to Blue and assign a project ('Home' or 'Pets'). Then later it moves to Yellow and the name is "Get a Beagle?". Still later after sleeping on it, it goes to Orange and the title or notes is changed to "Go to Pet Store to get Beagle". Then it might go to Red as "Set up dog" with subtasks (get house, mat ...) or turned into a separate project. Finally, it might go to Green ("Take dog to park") :)
  • Finally the name should be clear. Five contexts, five triggers.

In addition I have a regular set of contexts for miscellaneous tasks, really just people and places (errands) and a Tickle File (On Hold), but these are what's used for the creative work and most tasks for me. If it seems complicated or over-thought it's really not, it just came from observing how I naturally do my mostly creative work.

So here's my actual context list, small, concise and orthogonal
  • @Blue
  • @Yellow
  • @Orange
  • @Red
  • @Green
  • @People (:Wife :Son :Family ...)
  • @Place (:Grocery Store :Library ...)
  • @On Hold

Well I'm in the early stages of trying this out, comments welcome.
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Last edited by toolusr; 2010-09-26 at 09:26 AM..
Hi Toolusr,
I'm working in the same field as you do - in Software Development - and I definitely struggle with contexts for quite a while for the same reasons. I usually start off with a thought or an idea which needs to ripe over time and as you stated migrates through different stages which usually don't refer to physical triggers but could happen anywhere or anytime, be it the couch, under the shower or sitting in the garden watching the children play. Only at some point I really need to sit down at the desk with a physical context (e.g. computer), take some concentrated and focussed time and do writing or programming tasks.
So, for me, your approach is not over-thought but reflects reality pretty well. Even more, the physical contexts for most of my tasks are not necessary as long as I find my iPad, iMac, Laptop or a paper and a pen to get going, usually no matter where it happens or when, as long as I'm in the right mental state to drive things forward.

Thanks a lot for delivering a shortcut and save me from analyzing my own 'cow paths'. The only thing I might change is the colours of your contexts, though ;-)

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