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Why OmniFocus v1 didn't support multiple contexts per action Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes
Regular visitors to these forums know that various flavors of "when will OmniFocus support multiple contexts (or tagging)?" is a fairly common question here. Over the years, we've answered that question in piecemeal fashion, so it's understandable that new folks wouldn't know where we stand on this. The information has changed over time and is posted in several different threads. It's confusing.

So, we're rebooting the conversation. I'll start this thread off with an attempt to clearly and comprehensively present our thinking on this subject. Once that's posted, I'll lock the previous threads - they'll still be available for reference purposes. Future threads will be merged into this one, so the conversation stays in one place and is easier to track.
In our experience, when an action looks like it requires multiple contexts, it almost always means that the action hasn't really been broken down into concrete, discrete steps.

We're not saying that you should go too far down the rabbit hole of breaking tasks down into sub-tasks (“Well, in order to send that email I’ll have to fill in the ‘To’ field, then the ‘Subject’ field, then compose each paragraph…”), but in our experience, several small actions are quicker to accomplish than one big, complicated compound action.

This approach also lets you independently accomplish each part of the task and mark it as complete, rather than needing to leave the compound action sitting open on your lists until you've done all the things it actually represents.

Another downside to tagging is that it tends to alter the meaning of your context lists. Rather than a short list of actions that you know you can do, you end up with longer lists that are full of actions you may be able to do.

Those longer lists require you to spend time searching through your context list, deciding whether you can actually do each item. Time you spend doing that is time you aren't spending getting things done.

We understand that a lot of folks are comfortable with a "fuzzier" approach to their contexts/workflow, but when there's a conflict between what's comfortable and what's productive, we really want our software to err on the side of productivity.

Obviously, what's "productive" is a subjective judgement, and we're inevitably losing out on sales when we do this - there are other products that take a different approach to this issue. Having lots of options is actually a good thing, though! It's more important that folks be able to use a tool that works the way that they do than it is that the tool come from us.

Myself and the other support folks will be happy to help someone resolve any problems they're having applying a single-context approach to their workflow. Let us know which situations you're struggling with and we'll be happy to help. And if the lack of a multiple-contexts option means that OmniFocus isn't the right tool for you, we'll figure out another solution. One of our core values is that we shouldn't profit from selling tools people can't use or don't need.

Last edited by Brian; 2013-02-08 at 03:00 PM.. Reason: clarify the final 2 paragraphs
Okay, so, if we're not going to support multiple contexts, what should people used to those kinds of systems do while working with OmniFocus? The following examples are far from comprehensive, but they cover some of the most common use cases we've seen presented.

While I'm at the office, I need to ask my boss a question. It's a high priority task. I need three tags to capture that.

Create an "Office" context, and put the context for your boss inside that one. Tasks that only your boss can help with go in their context. Tasks that anyone in the office can help with go in that one. (Plus, you can assign a location to the Office context and use the Map view in the iOS apps!)

The highest priority tasks get flagged; everything that's high-but-not-highest priority gets moved to the top of the project, so they're first to get knocked off once the must-do actions are done. Everything else gets reviewed and re-prioritized during your next review.

I need to buy something. I might get it online, or order it over the phone, or buy it at a store in my neighborhood.

This is a case where breaking the action up has real benefits. You'll often save money by breaking this up into at least four steps. You'll generally want three "research <option>" steps, and one "purchase the best option" step. Skipping any of those steps risks paying more than you should, or not buying the best item.

Of course, sometimes there really are multiple options where you could get the same item with little to no difference in price. (Say, an AppleTV or other unmodified product from them.) In that case, just pick whichever applicable context you look at most frequently. In the majority of cases, that'll get the action done soonest, and you'll save time overall.

I need to ask Anna or Bob a question. Either of them could answer it. I might call them, or email them. I need four tags.

Make contexts for Anna and Bob. Assign the action to whomever you're in touch with most often, and decide when you capture the action whether you'll call or email them. Put that info in the action title, so future-you doesn't have to think about it.

I need to show Cindy a new machine that's in a particular location. If I'm not in that place, or if Cindy's not there, I can't do it.

Assign the action to the context for the location. Put Cindy's name in the title. Check the context for that location when you're there; if Cindy's there, do the action. In the meantime, if you're meeting with Cindy at some other location, you're not distracted by an action you can't do.

Last edited by Brian; 2013-02-08 at 03:36 PM.. Reason: add third and fourth items.
Many of the threads that were moved into this one were about tagging and flagging in general. Not about multiple contexts. Multiple contexts would not help me but I would love some tags or at least colored flags.
I think this post should be one of those sticky permanent posts in this forum.

Perhaps an FAQ with a link to this post would be on Brian's OmniFocus list?
While some things are multiple contexts some can just be handled with tags. There are many things that can be completed without other's involvement, say expense report, but if I have a tag for Susan the company accountant and I am sitting with her, I could filter and pull up related tasks (the two items I am not sure will be approved in expenses makes a this a much quicker task and done in one pass).

I also have contextual conundrums as I have a task for a face-to-face meeting with a friend, who lives in San Francisco. But, I also run into him at some conferences as well as when he floats through the town where I live. If I am planning a trip to SF the note to email my friend to set up a face-to-face and put it on the schedule is needed. For a while I had this in SF trips context, but not in conference related tasks where he was.

While OmniFocus has location context having another "person" context would help as well. Tying this to their entry in address book would be quite nice (the simple mapping names to address cards like VooDoo Pad does is really nice). When adding a person and seeing latest interactions with them (similar to the review with calendar view slated for OF2 would be quite helpful).

I really like the main multiple context filters outlined in the "what should be do..." in Brian's post above.
Related to this thread, I have been doing work for years around building and design tools for groups and teams as well as their needs for individuals. Focus on tasks continually highlights that there are multiple contexts for many tasks. The high level contexts are location, who (and who with, which is often many people), tools and services needed (onilne/off as well as single or multiple tools and services needed), time (when as well as time needed (duration)), and resources (documents and/or objects).

The big ones in this list are where, tools/services, and who. In a prior post I brought up the VooDoo Pad person context service that ties to the Mac's Address Book cards.
Thanks Brian.
Hi Brian,

I mostly use the Ipad Version and the Mac version I pretty much only use to archive old data. OF for iPhone is used for out and about.

My thinking is that I have three types of contexts. People, Places and Tools

For the most part, this serves me well, but there are other things I would like to tag

1) Expected time to complete tasks (Self Explanatory)
2) Energy levels (How able am I to complete this task)
3) Priority

I realise that Priority is not GTD Canon, but I have a lot of things going on, some can be let slide, but some MUST be done in a timely manner whether that means Today, or later. Flags do not provide me with enough granularity.

The other place where contexts fall down, is that I have regular meetings with people. Some things I put against the meeting context as it's a topic to be discussed, but there's also the possibility that I can catch someone before or after that meeting, or something I'd discuss with someone if I caught them alone, but would bring up in the meeting if they're there, it doesn't matter which happens first. I think that being able to put multiple contexts or tags against an item makes me far more productive (Used to do this in egretlist) as I'm more likely to knock things off due there being more available 'contexts' in which to do it.

The reality is that GTD and it's description of contexts is outdated, and different situations are now present that weren't available 12 years ago.
Originally Posted by GeoffAirey View Post
Hi Brian,

For the most part, this serves me well, but there are other things I would like to tag

1) Expected time to complete tasks (Self Explanatory)
2) Energy levels (How able am I to complete this task)
3) Priority

There is a an entry field for estimated time that you can enter.
Some people have also adapted the estimated time field for duration.

For priorities, you can try this method:

Here's another one for low energy:

I've found that going granular with my priorities has made me numb to it. If I see that a task is a #9 but another task is #7, I might just do the #7 and ignore the #9 higher priority task. They are both pretty important but I'm going to ignore the fact that #9 is higher than #7.

There was an instinctual way of looking for high priority tasks:

All Due or Due Soon tasks that have a real due date must be done first. After those tasks are taken care of, I can look at my flagged tasks which are not urgent but important for me to do in the next few days.

I didn't have to use priority tags for this. If the task is due, then I'd better get started on completing those tasks. Most tasks don't have a due date but I would like to get them done. During my weekly review, I unflag all my currently flagged tasks and start reviewing. I look for projects/tasks that I instinctually decide is important for me this week. It could be something that became interesting because of a recent conversation/movie/book. Then I know I have targeted those flagged tasks/projects for this week.

I did the whole ABC Stephen Covey priority deal with my old Franklin Planner. It never worked. I basically ignored it. I just grouped all my due items on the top part of the planner page. Then I grouped my targeted items (flagged or big rocks) in the middle of the page and all the low priority items either on a separate someday/maybe page or at the bottom third of the day's page.

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