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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.

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    Last Updated on June 18, 2019

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Making Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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