Making Lists That Make Sense – GTD Contexts

Today I got an email from Troy. His question caused me to wax philosophic about todo lists. So give it up for Troy for inspiring the first actual FrankenBlog post in a bajillion years.

What the heck is a context?

It’s a word that Google voice recognition will NEVER GET RIGHT. But that’s not important right now.

Simply put: A context is a situation or location. Best example is your shopping list. When you need something from the store, you add it to your shopping list and then you forget about it completely. You don’t usually write it on a random scrap of paper or on a list of chores. We also don’t usually try to keep it in our mind and hope that we don’t forget about it when we get to the store. Yet that’s what we seem to do with almost everything else.

It’s almost absurd that David Allen had to write “Getting Things Done” in order for us to get this, but it makes sense to have other location-specific lists. Sometimes we do it without even thinking. Making a weekend chore list for ourselves is a context list. David Allen pioneered the use of @ to indicate a context list, so that chore might be called @Chores. Your shopping list might be @Store, or @Errands if you include the dry cleaning or returning a video (heh – just kidding).

If we’re used to writing crap on scraps of paper, our first evolution towards sanity tends to involve collecting all that crap and putting it all on a big list. But then we are forced to read through a bunch of stuff we can’t do if we’re in the wrong place. So the next step is to decide on what contexts work for us.

my contexts

@Office – This is only stuff I can do while I’m at work. There is no housework or school work on this list. When I look at this list, I am choosing from a list of only things that are relevant to where I am at that time. Nice.

@Work – Holdupaminnute… what now? Yes! Contexts may change over time! @Office became @Work now that I’m able to work from home. Some things have to be done in the office, but very few. So I don’t need that context anymore. Now I want a list of work-related stuff I can do when I’m in work mode. @Office was a location-specific context. @Work is a situational context.

@Home – Can only be done at the house. Changing filters. fixing stuff and things.

@School – This is another situational context. When it’s time for me to do school work, all my school stuff is right here on this one list.

@Anywhere – Stick with me here. These are things I can literally do anywhere, e.g. certain phone calls or emails or website to read. These things don’t really fit snugly in my other contexts, so go there. The alternative is to duplicate these things in each context where it fits, and I ain’t doing it.

@Kyle – Who is Kyle? Irrelevant! The point is that I have a context list for Kyle, and anything that I need to talk to Kyle about goes on his context list. David Allen calls this an “agenda,” so I do, too. I have an agenda for everyone at work I speak to regularly. It’s a great way to avoid nagging someone for little things one at a time. Makes for more meaningful meetings, too. Speaking of meetings…

@Insert-Meeting-Here – I have an agenda for meetings I regularly attend. So when someone asks to talk about something in the next Senior Management Meeting, I have a place to park it. This has been quite helpful but not as helpful as…

@Waiting For – THIS IS THE BEST. I love this context list. Order a package? Waiting for an email response? Employee needs to turn something in? Asked your partner something? Put it all on the @Waiting For list along with the date you ordered/emailed/asked and then live a better life. I’m dead serious, it’s so good. Review this list daily. So good.

Those are my contexts, and they’ve changed over the years. I suspect they’ll change again soon and I find myself thinking about what will work best in dividing up tasks for work (there are a LOT of them).

contexts i don’t use

David Allen actually suggests some contexts in “Getting Things Done” that will work for most people, but here’s the ones I don’t use and why.

@Calls – It’s 2020, and I just don’t have to make very many calls. They don’t deserve a context of their own.

@Computer – Since I have a laptop that is always with me, this seems to be moot. I am always capable of being @ my computer. This would be no different than @Breathing.

@Computer (offline) – Oh David Allen, you are adorable! He first wrote this book in 2001, in a world where this might actually happen. To be fair, you might run into this if you are frequently on airplanes, but I am never in this situation.

starting your own context lists

The good news is that you don’t have to figure out your own contexts right away. If you are just starting to follow Getting Things Done, just use David’s suggestions. Don’t rush it, and don’t go context crazy, either. The fewer, the better.

contexts and bullet journaling

If you want to follow GTD in your bullet journal, it’s easy. Each context list becomes a “collection” and is added to your index. When I was doing this, I liked to have all my contexts towards the front of the BuJo so they were easy to access. If you have some other collection related to a project you’re working on, you can migrate tasks from that collection to the proper context (there’s actually a whole lot of attention given to this process in “Getting Things Done” but we’re not diving that deep today.)

There’s one big difference between GTD and Ryder Carroll’s BuJo method and it’s important. Ryder has you put all the tasks for a given month on a single monthly tasks list, and then you review that list every month and migrate the stuff worth keeping. If you switch to using contexts, then you won’t really have a task list in your monthly log anymore. That part of Ryder’s system will be spread out among (amongst?) all your contexts. That means you won’t have a centralized list to review every month. So how do you avoid things going stale on your context lists?

The Weekly Review! If you’re going to start following GTD concepts, the most important one is the weekly review. In fact, David Allen warns us that if we’re not doing a weekly review, then we’re not really doing GTD at all. (Damn David, take it easy!) GTD was designed for very busy, productive people, so it makes sense that it calls for weekly reviews. This keeps the contexts lists fresh, and I used it as an opportunity to ensure that everything I had added too my BuJo was included in my index.

helpful resources

If you’re interested in implementing the Getting Things Done methodology and you want to stick with an analog system, Allen’s company actually sells a terrific primer document that takes you step-by-step through the process of setting up your own system. You can also get the GTD book on Amazon, but make sure you get the 2015 edition, not the 2001 edition (pro tip). I also have a video you can watch on how I used GTD in my BuJo.


Thanks again to Troy for making me vomit all these words. I suppose I should spell check this, but I don’t want to. That blue “Publish” button is calling to me.

Let me know if you’ve used GTD with your BuJo in the comments. Hope this was useful. đź‘Ť

One thought on “Making Lists That Make Sense – GTD Contexts

  1. Great post! I read GTD years ago and had several failed attempts to use it. Having more success with Mark Forster’s simple but deceptively effective Autofocus method, though I use a notepad separate from my BuJo for it. Having read your post I now feel a bit silly for never thinking to make David Allen’s Contexts collections! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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