My OmniFocus Contexts Explained

I’ve had a great day today. Seriously, one of the most productive days in a very long time. The output has been zero in many senses. I mean, I haven’t physically produced any reports. No clients have experienced any training. In fact, until I opened up Marked 2 and Byword, I hadn’t typed anything creative at all. 

No, today was spent ‘stepping back’ and looking at all of my projects and daily tasks from a higher level perspective and seeing if there was any better way I could order them or some simplified way of being able to know what I need to do and when. 

It seems strange that someone that deals primarily in Productivity methodologies as a hobby would feel the need to do this. Shouldn’t my life be this continual flow of ideas out -> jobs done? Well, this is certainly both true and untrue to a point. My life is reasonably organised when you compare it to others. However organising and storing your own ‘stuff’ - and by stuff here, I mean data, tasks, information, anything that needs to be organised and processed - is very similar to how you store files on a computer. Do you not find that every now and then, you just throw a file on to your desktop because you don’t want to spend time filing it? Or in some random folder that you can no longer locate? Is this not the same with your physical possessions at home? You start off with a lot of good intentions when you tidy a wardrobe, or a room in your house, however it’s not long until you are back to where you started.

The same goes for me with my tasks. I have a quarterly task setup in OmniFocus which urges me to step back and just verify the contexts, perspectives I have are appropriate. Today, I decided that the contexts and perspectives needed upgrading. Maybe I’m just suffering from upgrade fever thanks to Yosemite and IOS 8.1 coming out this week!

In any case, I’m blabbering about contexts, but what exactly is a context? Well, there was an excellent exchange on Twitter over the weekend between myself, Mike Vardy and others debating this exact question - or at least trying to get it less than 140 characters. For a breakdown of Mike’s own feelings about contexts, please visit his excellent post on the Evolution of Contexts. 

In my own opinion, a context can be defined as a situation you currently find yourself in, like a location, a state of mind, with certain equipment, a time of day, that will have a direct impact on what can or cannot be completed at that particular point in time. 

Before I read David Allen’s seminal Getting Things Done book, I struggled with To-Do lists. I mean really struggled. They were just line after line of basic un-doability (No, it’s not a word, but it fits so nicely with the situation!). By the time I’d got to the end, something else would come up that needed adding. By applying a context to that list, it’s entirely feasible that I could have ended up with just a handful of tasks that could even be attempted. I mean, there would be no point me reading through a list of maintenance tasks that needed doing at home if I was sitting in the office. Or flicking through to-do’s that involved me having a high level of concentration when in actual fact it was straight after lunch and me energy levels were at their lowest. 

So how do my contexts work then? Well, firstly, let me say these are MY contexts that work for me. The beautiful thing about GTD is that it is a framework that is amazingly pliable to any given situation. My To-Do list is entirely based on context rather than project so I have a reasonably complicated context setup, whereas some of you reading this won’t have that at all and will think that I am mad with the setup I have! All I will say to that is please remember we are all different and all driven by different types of fuel when it comes to achieving our goals. If they work, they work. 

Firstly, I have some top-level contexts that reflect where I am OR, the focus I have set aside myself on my Calendar. Let me list then explain:


Ignore the No Context entry at the top. This is a default OmniFocus context that allows you to see any actions that you may have neglected to assign a context to. At the top I have Home Mode and this is exactly what it says. Nothing is contained in here which I would consider to be Work. This is a grey area and that is why I have had to use the word Mode on the end, as I do rather a lot of work from home, so placing those virtual boundaries is important to me. Home Mode is an entry on my Calendar and will include chores, maintenance tasks, things to do with the kids etc. A combination of maintenance and wind-down activities (more maintenance though I’m afraid!) is in here. Next up is Locations and this is an OmniFocus specific context that is able to ping me alerts when I enter a certain geo-location. For example, we have a shopping centre about two miles from my house. If I know I need to get batteries, then I will create an OmniFocus task and the context will be set as that shopping centre. Next time I drive past it, my phone will alert me to the fact that if I wanted, I could nip in there and get those batteries. I love this feature and it helps so much. 

Next, I’ve split my business interests into two different contexts, Work - IT Servicescovers the IT Consultancy I provide to small businesses and education establishments and Work - Productivity and Publishing covers everything that I do to try and work on the Productivity side of the business as well as the book writing, blogging, screencast creation etc. Again, like Home Mode, these will be specific time entries on my Calendar. I may give myself a three hour period on a day where I am working from home that is devoted to the IT Services side and I can pull up that context and away I go. 

Before I move onto the last three, I want to go back to Home Mode and look at the sub-contexts that are nested below:


You see, location isn’t enough for me. Yes, firstly I need to know where I am, or what I have scheduled myself to be doing at this particular time of day, however I need to make a decision on what to do based on the energy levels I currently have. I’ve limited this to two contexts - Full Focus and Low Energy. This means that I won’t be attempting to create a very important customer document when I find that I’m running on empty. Conversely, when I’m in Hero mode and able to really give everything to a task, I won’t be flicking through emails and filing. These contexts are further divided into two more sub-contexts if I need to have some technology available to do them. Macbook Pro and Mobile Devices will let me know what I can and can’t do if I have/don’t have those items to hand. 

Calls is simply a holder for any calls I need to make so that I can try and clear many out at once whilst I have a peaceful enough surrounding to do so. I’m a big fan of doing contextual actions in bulk when the time is right to do so. 

Agendas is important as this is where I hold items that I need to talk to somebody about the next time I see them. I have a lot things I find I need to talk to my wife, Kelly, about so these are listed there. Below this, in Waiting, I have items that I am indeed waiting for from people. 

To protect my clients anonymity, I won’t screenshot the sub-contexts below Work - IT Services, however it is very similar to the Home Mode one with the only difference coming directly below, on the next level. Once I look at my Calendar and see that I have scheduled myself IT Services time, I then need to know where I am. Am I at a client site? If so which one? Or am I at the home office? So I have a context for each of these locations sitting nicely below the main one. Beneath these, we have contexts for energy levels and equipment appropriately.

The last three are very simple as they have no sub-contexts at all.
Errands is a list of jobs that I need to do when I am out and about. We all have these I’m sure.
Reading is a list of reading materials that I can progress with at any given time. I have four Single Action Lists setup in OmniFocus that this context points to - Fiction, Non-Fiction, Productivity and Daily and the context is set to show only the next available book/website in each of these lists. This means that I can control which books I am reading at any time. It may seem strange having a context set aside for this, however I schedule a one hour entry on my Calendar every day for Reading as if I don’t, it won’t get done, and we HAVE to read as people otherwise we just will not grow.
Studying is the last one and I haven’t got any sub-contexts here as I ONLY study at home and I will ONLY do it when I am in Full Focus mode anyway, so there is no point complicating the setup further by adding contexts that aren’t needed. 

So there we have it. My context setup. It may seem like a lot, but when you look at it from a high level, it really isn’t. The hard work has been done once and that was in setting it up. Next time I add a task, I simply click the drop down and ask myself the questions “Right, where do I need to be to do this? Do I need to be in the zone to do it effectively? What equipment do I need to have?” and that’s it. Then when it comes to deciding what tasks I need to do, I can sit down and the same questions. “Where am I? (although if I have to ask that, my next job should either to be get some sleep or grab a coffee…) How much energy have I got? OK, give it to me, what can I do!”

Pretty soon, I will post up the perspectives I have set up as they extend the contexts a little more, giving them filters for how much time I have to complete any actions, however if you’ve made it this far through the post, you have done amazingly well, so I will leave that for another day. 

Thanks for reading!