Recently I completed a series of videos showcasing how to use pure GTD with Todoist. As part of that series I delved into the area of “contexts” and what they mean for the modern information worker in todays world. It was an eye opener for me, because prior to doing these videos I had never given it any deep thought. I used the original contexts as spelled out in David Allen’s book and added a few more that I felt I needed, but on the whole I was using dates to tell me what needed to be done and when.
This video series forced me in to rethinking contexts and I realised I was doing GTD wrong, in fact, I think I was doing it completely wrong.
You see there are two parts to the GTD book. And those two parts are in the title: “Getting Things Done: The Art Of Stress Free Living”. What I noticed is that everyone gets the first part: Getting Things Done”, but most people miss the second part “The Art Of Stress Free Living”. We are very good at putting tasks on a list and assigning a context without much thought and a date and in some cases a time to complete those tasks. The second part, and now I realise the most important part: living stress free, is usually missed and it is in the use of contexts that allows us to remove the stress from our lives.
Let’s go back a little bit here. The idea behind contexts is that we assign a context to a task that tells us where at task can be completed or with what tool or with which person. Essentially three things: what, where, who. Without one or more of those things the task cannot be competed. The date is irrelevant. Yes, of course you may indeed want to complete a particular task on a given date, but if you don’t have at least one of the “what, where, who” then you simply cannot complete that task. Yet, for most people, myself included, we continue to assign dates to tasks and hope we will find the time, have the tool, be in the right place or be with the right person to complete that task on its given day.
The thing is, if you focus on dates, then you are going to add stress to your life instead of remove stress from your life. We use phrases such as “I’ve got to…” and “I must do…” today. But no matter how much you want to complete those tasks on any given day, if you are not in the right place, or have the right tool or are with the right person, no amount of will, good intentions or hope is ever going to complete that task, and that will just add stress to your day instead of giving you that all important stress free life.
Of course there are always going to be things you must complete on a set day. Tasks such as “send final report to my boss” will usually have a deadline, but this type of task should be placed on your calendar and you should be making sure you have the right tools with you on that day to complete that task. Likewise if you were attending a wedding on a Saturday and needed to collect your wedding suit from the dry cleaners on Friday, that task would go on your calendar where you can assign the best time of the day to complete that task.
I have a task coming up on Friday “buy tickets for Ultra Music Festival, Seoul”. If I put that into my todo list, as a task for Friday, I would find myself stressing on Friday morning trying to figure out when I was going to stop by and buy the tickets. However, if that task was on my calendar, I would have a clear view of what is happening that day in terms of meetings, appointments and commitments and I could fit the time to buy the tickets in my schedule. When I do my daily review Thursday evening, I look at my calendar and see I have to call in to the ticket office on Friday at 11:00am to buy the tickets and I can also make sure I allow enough time to get to my next appointment. Simple. If my schedule is looking a bit tight on Friday, I can reschedule or cancel something depending on what has the highest priority.
We often feel we have a lack of time to complete everything we want to complete on a specific day, and I think that is caused by us wanting to do far more than we are capable of doing. If we focus less on time and more on what context we are in, I am sure we will find our days feel less stressed and less busy. The important things will still get done because those important things will be on our calendars, but the less important things will be on our lists. If we have a few minutes while waiting to get our haircut cut and we only have our mobile phone with us, we can look at the list for our mobile phone and complete a few of those tasks.
None of this is difficult, but I fear many of us (and I do include myself here) have over thought GTD and have made it unnecessarily stressful when it really need not be. Focus on the contexts and only put the absolutely must be done today tasks on your calendar. When looking at a task, ask yourself, does this really have to be done on a specific day, or am I adding a date because I might forget about it? It will make your day feel much less busy and stressful.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century