GTD – Back to basics 3 – Contexts and Next Actions


In the third post in the GTD Back To Basics series we take a look at what contexts are and how they can be used to simplify your organisation of all of those “to-do” items you have floating around your task lists and how to decided what your “Next Action” for each task is.

GTD – Back To Basics 3: Contexts and Next Actions
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So, you’ve captured and processed everything so you now have a nice list of next actions, projects, waiting for’s and someday/maybes. A list is all well and good but what’s the point if you don’t do anything with it?

Looking at one huge “To-Do” list can be daunting and off-putting. In order to help you get through this massive list, some time-management systems recommend that you prioritise tasks (A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 for example) and then work through the tasks with the highest priority first. This is all well and good but often you can find that the lower priority tasks are put to the back of the pile and never get finished. That’s where David Allen’s “Contexts” come in.

What are “Contexts”?

A Context is a setting in which an event takes place. David Allen says that when you tackle a task it should be based on the context that you’re in. For example, there’s no point trying to make an important phone call when you’re in a library but you could write that letter to your Aunt Betty thanking her for your birthday present.

So, to stop you feeling overwhelmed by all the tasks that you need to do, and also looking at tasks that you can’t complete given the context you’re in, David Allen suggest that you separate your tasks into Context Lists.

Context List – Quick Guide

I’ve written before that I personally don’t get on with the way that Allen sets out his context lists but that’s me – everybody’s different! As this is a “Back to Basics” series though, we’ll stick with Allen’s Contexts.

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Contexts are simply settings in which you need to do something. Some example contexts could be:

  • @Work
  • @Meetings
  • @Home
  • @Phone
  • @Computer
  • @Online
  • @Shopping

Some of you may be wondering why the “@”, this is so that in an electronic setting these folders will always be at the top of your list making them easier to find (see there’s no big mystery!)

In theory, every Next Action you captured during your initial collection phase should fit into one of these contexts.

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Organising your Next Actions and Context Lists

There are many ways that you can organise your context lists. You may decide to use and online solution, Moleskine or simple bits of paper with a heading on. Whichever method you use is up to you – as long as you’re comfortable with it and can keep track of all of your actions.

One thing to make sure is that you need to have the applicable context list with you when it’s relevant. There’s no point in only having your “@Computer” context list with you when all you have access to is a telephone.

Make sure your lists are portable and accessible so that when you’re in a given setting you can grab your list and get to work.

Choosing the Next Next Action

David Allen recommends that you choose your next action not only based on context but also amount of energy available. In other words, if you’re in the “@Phone” context and you really don’t have the energy to listen to Auntie Mavis going on about her bunions but you could stand the 3 minute call to the doctors then do that! There’s no point attempting anything if you’re physically or mentally not up to the challenge.

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Of course, you need to make sure you call Mavis about her bunions at some point!

The point is that once you have captured everything and organised it into the correct context you’ll start to feel a bit better, more in control and be heading towards a Mind Like Water.

In the next post in the GTD: Back to Basics series, we’ll discuss Projects

About The Author
Katy is always trying to be more productive one day at a time! Whether it's analogue, digital, motivational or psychological who'll try any system that will help her get things done and get organised. As well as running, she also loves making music and reviewing things.
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2 thoughts on “GTD – Back to basics 3 – Contexts and Next Actions

  1. “I just stumbled upon your website and find it very helpful. I’m a Graphic/Web Designer from the U.S. and have so much going on that I’m past the point of being overwhelmed. I’m going to get David Allen’s book and put this site at the top of my bookmark list!”

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