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What context do I put my Next Actions in?

When implementing GTD, more than anything else, people seem to be confused with what @contexts their Next Actions should be in.

I think very few people get this right. People traditionally keep lists based on project or priority. It just makes sense that the way you think about the data (in terms projects) is how you keep your to-do lists. David Allen came along and said "Context is more important than project, and as long as you're writing every Next Action down, you don't have to worry about what project it's attached to." He has you keep a separate Projects list just so nothing slips through the cracks.

I think people have a problem adjusting from one paradigm (hey, I get one cheesy 80's/Stephen Covey word per article, ok?) to another. They see the usefulness of contextual next actions, but fall short of creating truly useful categories. They apply the same project type approach to them, breaking them down into fine grained detail to the point where I'm positive some people have more lists than Next Actions.

David Allen uses the example of @phone in the book. This works for him because he finds himself at an airport with nothing but his cell phone and palm pilot on a regular basis. Or he has an @computer list because he's also rarely at a computer. Back in reality, very few people are in this situation often enough to require a complete list for it, but since it's the example used in the book, people use it. In reality people spend 90% of their time in front of a computer and next to a phone, and don't need a separate list for each.

So how do you set up your @context lists so that they make sense? (@lists come from the Outlook GTD plugin and my "name dropping" them here is a lame attempt to show that I'm really deeply entrenched in the GTD culture) Like the rest of GTD, the answer is simple.

Can I act on this item as soon as I read it?

If you have 15 lists, but they're all full of things that you can do from the same starting point, you have 14 too many lists. It doesn't matter if it's a phone call, email, or going to the printers to pick up your business cards, your lists should contain no more detail than that. And don't complain to me that your list would be too long that way, breaking it up into more lists doesn't give you any fewer Next Actions, it just lets you procrastinate some of them more by putting them on a list you'll ignore entirely.

I love to use the example of a shopping list. My local supermarket has things like motor oil enhancers and Rain-X. Even though these are automotive things, I put them on the same list as Broccoli and Chicken because I buy them in the same place.

Some of you would put them on an @car list or something because you can also get them at the gas station, but odds are you won't be checking your lists at the gas station anyway, and these lists need to be things you look at reliably when you need to. Otherwise, forgetting to look at a list is no better than forgetting to pick up an item that isn't on a list, and GTD starts to break down because "look at the list" becomes an item in your psychic RAM.

My mother was a master of this and created her hand written lists on a thin strip of paper and organized it vaguely by aisle. She put Peanut Butter near the center of the list because that stuff was near the center of the store, and Apples at the top of the list because fruit is always right when you walk in the door. She didn't have multiple lists, she just had one extremely well organized list.

She did, actually, leave notes for herself all over the house, and this worked well for her. This is a little different from the world most of us occupy because we can't actually leave little post-it's for ourselves in the copy room or meeting room and expect them to be there later. Also, there was a certain amount of effort required for her to, say, go upstairs and it would be inefficient for her to keep a list in the kitchen that had all sorts of things that needed to be done upstairs.

I only have 3 lists in my life, @work, @supermarket, and @home, and the @home list contains all sorts of things that I can't do at home, like buying toner for my printer. I know people have lots of other lists, but for your typical "chained to your desk" office worker, I just don't see the point.

I'm sure there will be people who even after reading this insist that they need lots and lots of lists, and they have lots of Good Reasons ® for them to exist, and I certainly won't begrudge you your own way of doing things, but I will remind you of Einstein's edict: Everything should be made as simple as possible -- but no simpler!

One person called these "area of my life contexts" because they tended to describe geographical regions (@work, @school, @home, etc.) rather than conceptual categories, and that's just fine with me.

A couple of the threads that inspired this article:

Some discussion on Merlinman's excellent blog & forum.

page first created on Sunday, March 06, 2005

© Mark Wieczorek