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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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    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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