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GTD Refresh: Contexts and Calendar

GTD Refresh: Contexts and Calendar

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    In my first post in this series, I discussed the steps I had begun to take in putting my GTD system back in order. I started by outlining my life at the moment (especially my Areas of Focus”) and sketching out a vision of myself in 3-5 years.

    The next step in my return to an orthodox GTD system is to reset all my lists, the physical core of GTD. Longtime readers of this blog know that I’ve never been very fond of the idea of contexts, but for my GTD refresh I decided that I need to bring contexts back into my setup.

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    Contexts are tricky. For people with clearly defined jobs and boundaries between their various roles/areas of focus, contexts make sense because you’re clearly “at work” or “at home” or “at your computer” or wherever.

    That’s not me, though. I am a college professor at two different colleges, with access to a variety of computers, office spaces, and other amenities over the course of the day when I am teaching. When I’m not teaching, I’m working at home as a freelance writer. The boundary between “@home” and “@work”, “@computer” and “@errands” can be very thin sometimes, often amounting to little more than my attitude.

    Especially since, no matter where I am, I am effectively using the same computer. Away from my house I use LogMeIn to access my home computer; at home, I use a netbook on the wireless network to pull files from and save them back to the same computer. So whether I’m in my office at the university, on the shared computer in the department office at the community college, on a public terminal in a library or classroom, or at home at my desk or on my sofa, if I’m looking at a computer, I’m always @computer. And if I’m not looking at a computer, I’m just “out”.

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    So it makes more sense for me to have just a few contexts, based more on type of task rather than the location. There are things I can do on a computer — pay bills, write, grade papers, shop, contact friends and business associates, watch videos, etc. There are phone calls I have to make. There’s everything else I do at home — laundry, maintenance, filing — and there’s everything else I do away from home — shopping, doctor’s appointments, lunch with family, dating, and so on.

    So I’ve got three contexts:

    • @computer
    • @phone, and
    • @out.

    Notice I don’t have @home — almost everything I ever do at home is on a weekly schedule, and everything that isn’t requires using a computer, making a phone call, or taking a trip out of the house. For example, to deal with a fidgety heater, I need to call the landlord or file an online service ticket.

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    Context lists don’t stand alone; they work in concert with the calendar. That’s why I don’t need a separate @home context — almost everything I’d put on an @home list is tied to a particular day or date and properly belongs on my calendar. I don’t think I’d quite understood that before — I saw the calendar as essentially a different kind of “task space” than context lists, and overloaded my task lists with stuff that should have gone into my calendar. Most task management software doesn’t help with this mindset, either, since you can date tasks and have them appear alongside your calendar on the day they’re due.

    But your calendar and context lists should complement each other. Since everything needs not just a place to get done but a time, working the calendar especially hard seems warranted. Especially because I thrive best when things are scheduled for particular times, pinning tasks to specific time-slots seems like a more effective way for me to maintain my productivity.

    In the  past, this might have represented a slight deviation from “orthodox” GTD. My understanding on reading Getting Things Done was that the calendar should be used onlyfor things that have to be done at a specific time. Either I misunderstood or Allen has come around to seeing the value of the calendar as a location for tasks, because in Making It All Work he definitely advocates pinning things to the calendar — even allowing that if they don’t get done on the day they’re scheduled, they should be moved to the next day.

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    This might seem like a lot of thought to put into what are really the most basic and straight-forward elements of GTD, but I think it’s merited. First of all, after several years of familiarity with GTD principles, I’m in a much better position to understand the “system for a system” aspect of GTD — the way GTD provides principles for assembling a system, rather than a system in and of itself.

    Secondly, I think the big takeaway of GTD is that consciousness creates productivity. Using context lists in the past never worked forme because I hadn’t really been conscious of why I was using those particular contexts, and how to keep them all organized and available. Which is to say, instead of paying attention to my tasks, I was paying attention to the way my tasks were organized. If I’m going to make contexts work for me, I need to understand and accept (and trust) that they really are functioning according to my particular needs.

    Which is really the point of this series. I know that people like to read about other people’s systems — I certainly know I do — but it would be hardly worth writing about if you couldn’t see the process I’m going through to determine how to put that system together. I certainly don’t expect anyone to trim their contexts down to the three I’m using; what I hope, though, is that you’ll be inspired to follow some of the reasoning I’m using to determine what an affective set of contexts might look like for your life.

    Next time (most likely): Balancing software and paper.

    More by this author

    Building Relationships: 11 Rules for Self-Promotion How to Become an Expert (And Spot out One Nearby) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works) Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed Back to Basics: Your Calendar

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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