Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

A Pattern Language for Productivity, Pattern #10: Context Lists

by Andre · 3 Comments

Context ListContext lists are a way of organizing next actions by the physical place or resource needed to execute the actions. A shopping list is a familiar context list. Instead of adding shopping items to a To Do list, we segment the items we need to purchase at the store, filtering out the other things we need to attend to. Then when we’re in the store, we can concentrate on what we need to specifically do there without worrying about the phone calls we have to make, or the other errands we need to run.

The principle behind the shopping list can be applied to other contexts. A list exclusively for actions that have to be done at the computer, one for things that have to be done at home, and another for things that can only be done at the office are examples of practical context lists.

Why maintain separately lists? Isn’t it simpler to have a single list for everything?

By filtering out a view of what you can’t do in a certain context, you’re left with a list that inherently doable. When you’re at a computer, you’re confident that when you look at your @Computer list, the list contains everything that you actually can do, and nothing that you can’t do. Tasks that can’t be done at the computer just add clutter. The most effective task list is one that only has items that are actionable. The easiest way to go numb to a task list is to combine actionable items with inactionable ones.

Multiple lists can obviously get out of hand. You’ll need to experiment with different list organizations before finding the optimal array of lists that work with your lifestyle. If you work at home, you may not need separate action lists for @Computer, @Calls and @Home (the @ symbol is a common notation for contexts). But sometimes it helps to create separate contexts anyway. It forces you to define a task as a physical, visible action. Does “Contact John” translate to “Call John” or “Email John”? A well-defined next action list should hold the results of your thinking so that acting from it requires little or no further thinking.

Nearly everyone needs to customize his or her context lists at some point, but here are the most common ones:

  • @Home
  • @Computer
  • @Office
  • @Anywhere
  • @Errands
  • @Calls
  • @Agendas

The latter context contains issues that need to be discussed with a particular person. There are two main ways of organizing agendas lists. You can simply create separate @Agendas lists appending an individual’s name to each list (@Agendas-Fred); or in an electronic organizer, you can usually create a nested list: the names of the individuals are listed in @Agendas, and the actual agenda get listed in the note field for each entry. If you use a Palm organizer, see How to Set up GTD on a Palm for more information.

Some uncommon, but potentially useful contexts:

  • @Computer-Online (if connectivity is not constant)
  • @Library
  • @Notebook or @Writing
  • @[secondary work site]

Never hesitate to add a new list if you suspect that there’s a better way of filtering your tasks, and importantly, don’t hesitate to drop and consoldate lists if they’re just adding overhead. The goal is to have a few lists as possible, but as many as you need.

Tags: A Pattern Language for Productivity


  • VJNo Gravatar // Apr 18, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Mine include:
    “@home – with toddler around”
    “@ home – no toddler”
    “day calls” (businesses usually)
    “evening calls”
    “out – small town”
    “out – city” (about 40 km (?30 mi) away

    This level of detail works for me.

  • Andre KibbeNo Gravatar // Apr 18, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    “With toddler around” — brilliant!

  • SamNo Gravatar // Apr 20, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Love the toddler ones!

    My contexts are:

    @Waiting – Home
    @Waiting – Office

    I keep them in a single Excel sheet with four columns:

    Task | Project | Context | Done (date/blank)

    Not glamorous, but lightning fast to use with Excel’s built-in autocomplete and filtering, and it keeps a chronological record per project with almost zero effort. Great for reviewing.

    Andre, great series – thank you.