Brandon's Notepad

August 28, 2013

Getting Things Done @Home

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My GTD journey began in 2009 at both work and home. I’ve already written three posts about by workplace implementation, but I managed to postpone writing about my home experience until now, over five years later! It was in part because I gained so much more ground at work and at a rapid pace, and I had something exciting to share. At work, I was completely in charge of my workspace and I enjoyed the freedom, time, and energy to establish and use my system at I saw fit. Home was another story. Evenings and weekends were usually filled with family and household obligations. Most evenings, I was too tired to think by the time my “me” time rolled around, and the sheer volume of “stuff” I needed to process was overwhelming. And the worst of it was that, not only must I share a workspace, but I was met with a lot of resistance. To be honest, none of that has really changed much. I tried so many things to make GTD work at home and racked so many lessons learnt, I didn’t have anything worth writing about. Now, I finally have a system that works well.


I have the same basic mail services that most people have (e-mail, voicemail, and snailmail), and like most GTD neophytes, the first thing I did was rush out and buy a physical inbox to collect incoming stuff, both paper and non.

Physical Inbox. I bought a HŌM-branded multipurpose tray from Walmart which is basically an oversized paper tray with angled sides such that the top opening is larger than the bottom. I figured this would be good for holding a lot of stuff, even bulky items within reason, like flashlights requiring fresh batteries or toys in need of repair. I still use the tray, but I put things there myself for the most part. There seems to be this fear that items that go into the box will simply be missed (or even purposely ignored); ironically, because the box is not used as a regular collection place, that is exactly what happens! I don’t expect anything to show up there, so when something is put into the box I may not see it until days or weeks later.

E-mail. Nothing compares to Gmail’s labels and filters. I love opening my inbox and having a good general idea about what’s in it by simply scanning the brightly colored labels. It makes a serious difference when I need to scan but not process my e-mail. The recently added categories (e.g. Social, Promotions, Updates, etc.) are proving to be really useful too.

Voicemail. This albatross, on the other hand, I loathe. E-mail me. Text me. Why are we still leaving voicemails these days? Well, I still have to deal with them, so I usually go straight through the queue and write each call down on a list, including date and time of the call, the number, the caller, the purpose of the call, etc., and then I process the list immediately after hanging up. This takes a little time and attention, so I unconsciously resist this task, often until my mailbox is full and I get text messages and e-mails to that effect. (Again, why not just e-mail me from the start?) On one phone line, I do enjoy automatic transcription of messages delivered by e-mail, but the resulting text is often butchered so badly that it is more a form of entertainment than a productivity tool.

Snailmail. Mail delivered to the house aggregates on the kitchen bar. It is never placed into my inbox lest I miss a bill or a bank statement or some other correspondence that demands my immediate attention. Not that I’m informed about such things — I have to search and re-search the stack periodically to see if anything new shows up. It would be far more efficient and effective to just place all mail directed toward me in my physical inbox and then give me the time to deal with it, but I finally gave up on this crusade. I now consider the kitchen bar an inbox. Hey, at least it’s consistent.

My Chair Isn’t “In”. I have precisely the same problem at home that I had at work when I started using GTD five years ago. The only difference is that at home the problem hasn’t gone away. While it is unfathomable to put something in my physical inbox, it’s perfectly acceptable to place it in the seat of my chair only three feet away. And it isn’t one thing either, but five or six at a time. Want a guarantee that something doesn’t get done? Prevent me from sitting down to work on it. I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive either, I just get very frustrated when I can’t sit down in my own chair, and then I tend to avoid the workspace altogether.

Camera Phone. A picture is worth a thousand words. See something at the store you want to buy later? Snap a pic with your camera phone. A buddy of mine captured his daughter’s class schedule and locker combination when school started the other day just in case they are needed at an odd time. I have a lot of pics of books that I find at bookstores that I want to consider checking out from the library or purchasing online later. I still get backlogged in processing these, but its a great capture tool.


As if collection didn’t have enough woes, I suffer from two serious downstream problems: no space and no time. The space constraint affects organization. Let’s say I find a child’s toy in my physical inbox in need of repair but I cannot complete the job in the moment. I have two choices: put it back into the inbox (wrong!) or allocate a space for it on my desk or credenza. The latter happens and not only does the room start to look cluttered, but I eventually run out of space to work! I have found no solution for this problem so far. The constraint on my time available to process does have a workaround: I stuff it all in my bag and take it to work where I can process at lunch. This really only works for paper, but it is an effective workaround.


Processing and organizing are almost the same activity in my opinion. Short of trashing it, an item always requires filing and/or the creation of at least one reminder in the system. I like to get rid of things, so I try to work electronically as much and as often as possible.

Google Calendar. As a user of Gmail, it makes perfect sense to use Google Calendar too. It works well, has a clean interface, and integrates well with other tools (such as Pocket Informant, about which I plan to write later). I eventually set up a family Gmail account and started using the Google Calendar in lieu of the calendar on the fridge. Since Android has permeated our household in the last few months, it has become much easier to live according to one shared calendar.

ThinkingRock. I have tried a lot of GTD software “solutions” (for which I’ve already started posting reviews) and I finally decided to use ThinkingRock exclusively for organizing projects, action lists, etc. I found it somewhat by accident. I downloaded the Android app (along with several others) and I quickly passed it off as inadequate. When I later started to delete the apps I wasn’t using, I thought I might give it one more look. That’s when I read that the app is just a simple front-end that syncs up with the full desktop application. The screenshots alone told me that the desktop program probably fulfilled most (if not all) of my requirements for a proper GTD system. What’s more, I consider the data in my GTD system as very sensitive, so I don’t particularly like it being in the cloud. This app saves data locally, and when I sync up the tablet, I can leave my laptop safe at home.

The Right Contexts. My post on Well-formed Context Lists is the most popular page on my ‘blog to date by a large margin. Taking my own advice, I’ve identified these contexts based on access and resources available/required:

  • @HomeOffice: At home with time to spare
  • @Garage: At home, in or near the garage
  • @Work: At place of employment with time to spare
  • @Commute: On the road, somewhere between home and work
  • @Errand: On the road, but not between home and work
  • @TBD: Used for upcoming actions when context is not yet clear

I find myself (or can easily place myself) in these contexts frequently. What may not be obvious is that the locations are not simply locations, but the gear available in those locations as well, and I choose contexts as appropriate. I know, for example, that I have a scanner at home and a reliable fax machine at work, so I don’t feel like I have to have contexts like @Scanner or @FaxMachine.

The Tickler File. The good ol’ tickler file did not survive at home. As it turns out, I don’t have a lot of items at home to incubate, and since most decisions are family decisions, a personal tickler doesn’t make much sense. For many events, we make a soft commitment to ourselves to attend, mark the date on the shared calendar as optional, and then decide to break the commitment if something else more important comes up. I suppose David Allen would consider this as one way of feeling ok about not doing something because we know what it is we are not doing.

Labeled File Folders. David Allen’s logic concerning hanging file folders and file cabinets really influenced me. I purged the house of hanging folders a long time ago, opting instead for basic manila file folders held in cardboard folder holders (Fellowes Banker Box brand if memory serves). I also invested in a personal labeller. Despite Allen’s advice, this one is battery-powered for convenient use throughout the house. Since I always keep boxes of AA and AAA batteries in stock, I wasn’t too worried about running out of juice at an inconvenient time; besides, batteries seem to last forever in this thing. The labeller is shared, also despite his advice, but it stays in my office when not in use, so I don’t recall at time when it wasn’t there when I really needed it. Family records are stored in our one file cabinet, personal records that only I care about are stored in file boxes, and a small set of folders that I use very frequently or in holders next to my desk.

Reference. As I’ve already mentioned, I like to work digitally as often as possible. I will admit, I’ve always been a bit of a packrat (or is ‘compulsive hoarder’ more politically correct?). In recent years, with storage space becoming more precious as the family grows, I’ve come to terms with the idea of scanning things to which I’ve attached some sentimental value, like old school work. It has been a constant cycle of sorting and combining stacks of paper, purchasing additional storage containers, and preparing for batch scanning, but I’m finally about ready to plough through it all and free up a lot of space. Meanwhile, new stuff is digitized almost from the start.

Evernote. Evernote is my primary reference tool. I have tons of links and snippets organized into notebooks, tagged as appropriate. I usually draft my posts on Evernote as well. The Android app is awesome, though I did lose a lot of work once when a syncing glitch fried one of my entries. Inspired by The Secret Weapon, I briefly considered using Evernote to fully implement GTD, but decided against it because, being a general-purpose tool, it lacks a certain solidity. I felt the same way about TiddlyWiki before it. Unrestrained customizability can be a very bad thing. At a minimum it is a distraction, but I think it intrinsically compromises the trustworthiness of the system — and if a GTD system must be anything, it must be trusted. In addition, I found it more calming psychologically to have separate tools dedicated to specific tasks. This is my reference tool, period.

Brandon’s Notepad. Of course, this site is also part of my reference collection — that’s why I created it! I draft posts in Evernote, but they are deleted once posted so that there is only one source for a particular topic.


The frequent review of commitments is probably the hardest habit to keep and the biggest stumbling block for most GTDers, myself included. Thankfully, this is where ThinkingRock really shines. At the end of my post on Commitment Management I discuss making the weekly review stronger by shifting the focus off of next actions and onto projects. In ThinkingRock, I use the project tree in the lower-left corner of the project view to drive my reviews. That way, I don’t waste time reviewing the granular details of every related action, especially since I do sometimes plan out a few key steps in advance and not just the next one. Having immediate access to success criteria for both project and action is also invaluable. Any actions that happen to be unrelated to any project show up in the ‘Single Actions’ tab in the same window pane, and I do review those, primarily to see if I need to force myself into a particular context during the coming week.


Not a lot of magic here. Doing is doing is doing. Here are a few observations, though.

Queues. I’ve found that a lot of GTD doesn’t have to happen if I establish queues for myself. Reconciling receipts, entering contact info, ripping CDs, and other tasks can be queued up for batch processing. In substance, this isn’t much different from any other list of actions, except that a reminder doesn’t need to exist for each receipt, business card, or CD. The location of the queue is usually driven by storage requirements, and that may or may not be in the most favorable context. For example, I can usually carry my unreconciled receipts and statements with me to work on at lunch time, but I cannot carry my entire CD collection with me for ripping. Working through queues usually requires no reminders once the ball gets rolling, a possible exception being for those tasks for which I want to dedicate a regular time on the calendar, say, each week.

Recurring Reminders. I made the mistake of setting a bunch of recurring reminders, only to find that they are not very effective. Creating the action “Replace HVAC filter”, which should recur every month, sounded like a great idea, but the cycle never seemed to be very stable. Part of the problem was that the replacement itself was not necessarily the next physical action. I would usually wait to buy a new filter until it was time to replace it, so the next action should have been “Buy HVAC filter”. That worked in those months of heavy air-conditioner usage, but in the Spring and Fall usage tapers off and we can go two or maybe even three months between changes. At this point, the monthly recurrence doesn’t make much sense. The next action could be “Inspect HVAC filter”, but the schedule will still be disrupted by delays of one or two weeks here and there. The point is not to avoid using GTD (or even calendars in general) for such reminders, but that recording the next occurence of an action may be best triggered by the completion of the current one and not by a date-driven algorithm.

Closure. It does feel good to mark actions as done. If I can’t do so immediately (or at least on the same day), I make sure to do so during my review. Sometimes I know exactly what the next action should be and sometimes I don’t, but taking the time to cross off an action greatly increases the chances that I’m going to figure it out real quick and keep things moving by creating the new action in the system.

May 11, 2012

Getting Things Done: Well-Formed Context Lists

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The Context List concept is probably the most recognizable feature of GTD. If a friend, family member, or coworker possesses file folders (or just about anything for that matter) bearing nicely-printed labels such as @Calls or @Shopping, it is almost certain that this person uses GTD. As simple as they seem, contexts represent aspects of personal lifestyle and can be as diverse as the people defining them. Is it any wonder that contexts spark the hottest debates in online GTD circles.

NOTE: Before spending a lot of time on next action contexts, be sure to understand how the focus of GTD is really on commitments.

Context Defined

A “context” list is simply a list of physical next actions that share some unique prerequisite or constraint. All that is needed for one to complete any or all of the actions on a context list is for one to choose to place oneself into that context with all the necessary resources available. The context in which an action may (or must) take place is determined early, when the action is first identified as the “next” one. A textbook example is @Calls (or @Phone), the list of actions that can be performed when one has access to a phone and the time to use it. Of course, this list will probably consist exclusively of phone calls to be made, but it is quite easy to see that the @Internet context could encompass a more diverse set of actions such as doing research, paying bills, writing emails, etc. My definition is a bit more explicit than Allen’s, but I believe that many of the common problems people have with defining contexts (see below) could be attributed to the lack of understanding that contexts must be properly bounded, that contraints are an overriding factor in their establishment.

Some Assembly Required

David Allen suggests a list of contexts in the book, and this is a good starting point, but it is not logical to assume that this list will be a perfect fit for everyone. Believe it or not, there are purists out there that try to operate using only the prescribed contexts. Times change and while people in society operate in generally the same way, people have different styles. Technology changes too. The specialized context “@Email” is different than “@Internet”, which could more properly be renamed “@WWW”, but why not “@Facebook”, “@Blog”, and “@Ebay”? Then again, is this specialization really needed? The answer is, whatever works best given a set of constraints that govern when, where, and how something should or must be done. IMHO, this is one of the most fun aspects of GTD, and yet, the most discouraging one as well.

Common Problems

A lot of people have posted their difficulties in using contexts and many have given up trying to use them (and sometimes GTD) altogether. There are several common issues that seem to resurface, and I’ve managed to experience every one of these in my own GTD implementation, so I can relate. This is not an exhaustive list and it may grow over time.

List Size. Many people complain that their lists get too big to manage. When they enter the context, there are too many things to evaluate, so nothing actually gets done. If lists are too few, then (obviously) each list will gather more entries given the same number of actions. This could also be an indicator that they need to place themselves into that context more often or for longer periods of time so that they can actually get more done.

Overcustomization. This is the opposite problem from the one above. Too many specialized lists will become a burden on all levels, when processing and organizing new things to do, when finding something to do in the moment, and when conducting the weekly review. The result is subconscious resistance to the system overall. Such constructs have traditionally been called “pigeonholes”. For example, as mentioned above, does one really need an “@Ebay” context list just to accumulate the list of things to consider buying from there? If I had this context list defined, am I really going to think about looking at when I’m at the computer? Or only when I have to make some other, more urgent purchase and I happen to remember to look at it? For how many other sites should/must I define context lists? There are several better ways to handle this information. The simplest would be to do away with the specialized list and add the actions to the more general @Computer or similar list, but I personally think doing this adds noise. Instead, keep a shopping list in reference and make it a habit to review it before finalizing any purchase (at a minimum) to see if anything should be added to the cart. Add a tickler reminder to review it periodically, say every two weeks; though, using the list itself as the reminder is not the best idea, since it should be easily accessible whenever random new items must be added.

Overlap. Consider the following contexts: @Desktop-Online, @Laptop-Online, @Laptop-Offline, @Office-Online…etc. These contexts were designed to avoid overlap. While it may be legit to have a task that has to be done with special software that is installed only on the laptop which also requires Internet access, this level of customization is prohibitive. In the book, Allen discusses setting up identical work spaces in various locations, at work and at home for example, and about having a mobile workspace as well. This uniformity will ensure that the necessary tools are always available, and thus, eliminate the need to specialize contexts in this manner. This may mean paying for mobile broadband access for that laptop, as if that were a bad thing.

Project Focus. Deferring an action until I’m “@Working on Project X” is not appropriate. For starters, “@Working on Project X” does not indicate one thing about the environment in which the work must take place. It’s also not efficient, because a shifting gears to make a phone call and then again to do something else, all while “@Working on Project X”, actually works against the GTD mechanism. The whole purpose for using contexts is to group similar tasks. Besides reliance on common resources (constraints), humans tend to work faster and with more consistency when doing repititious actions. Don’t misunderstand me — setting aside a block of time to focus on Project X is not a bad thing, and the quality of the outcomes for each action may actually improve if creative juices are flowing around a project, but that doesn’t mean the context is appropriate. In my experience, using a digitized system that allows me to assign each task to a project folder as well as a context is highly useful, because I can crank through the actions in times of focus (via the folder) or while in context (@Phone). They are just two different views into the same database. I’m not sure how one would accomplish this using a paper-based system without having to create multiple copies of the same action reminder to be stored in different places.

@Anywhere. “Anywhere” is a code name for “No Context”. Avoid it. Besides, “think about” is the only action I know of that can be done literally anywhere.

Non-Context Attributes. Priority, energy level, and other such attributes are not contexts. Like the aforementioned project folder concept, these are other criteria for selecting what to do in the moment. Given high levels of energy or an action with a very high priority, one will be motivated to change their context, immediately if necessary, to get that action done.

Well-Formed Contexts

So, what do good contexts look like? What makes them work? If I had to sum it up in one single answer, it is the proximity of the contexts to reality that makes the difference. This proximity is based on constraints. I don’t want to recommend specific contexts here. Instead, I’d rather present the attributes of good and useful contexts based on my own experimentation. The list below — only two factors — is a reduction of a much longer list, distilled over the last few years.

Access. Contexts are only useful if they are accessible, that is to say that you can and do put yourself into them, preferably with some regularity. Since you define your own contexts, constraints are completely self-imposed. You have to make yourself available to get things done. In his writing, Allen often finds himself in this context or that. He happens to be running errands and wants a list of places to go and things to buy, or he happens to have an extra thrity minutes for phone calls because a meeting was cancelled. Not me. When I have calls to make, I need to go make them. I usually have to make the time, not wait until I discover it. Sometimes I have to drop what I’m doing and force myself into @Phone at 8:30 AM on a weekday, because the calls on the list are important, or someone is waiting (read: nagging me) for information that I must obtain during the call, or the list itself is just getting too long. Some contexts are more natural than others or are easy to enter because they “just happen” routinely, such as @InboundCommute. In contrast, a context that is so contrived or obscure that it is difficult or impossible to enter it (frequently or at all) is not useful, and it would be better to schedule time for such actions on the calendar instead. In the same vein, some contexts entered frequently or even routinely are just not necessary, such as @BathroomSink, @DentistChair, and @Asleep.

Resources. Pens, paper, the computer, the Internet, reference books, people, and above all, time. These are hard constraints. I can only discuss this topic @Manager or that topic @Wife. I can type this @Computer, but I have to research that @Internet. If I have made my workspaces (reasonably) identical, the same action can be done @Home, @Work, @Library, or even @Car; in this case there is no difference in the hard constraints, so why have three or four different context lists? Location is a pretty hard constraint if you let it be. When you know that you are allowed to move between contexts and not just wait for them to happen, drawing boundries between them based on resource constrints becomes much easier. If you have to decide to put an action on one of two lists, and the lists have four out of five resources in common, then you just wasted time and effort. Are these contexts really different? The answer is in the constraints. Adding gear or changing some other factor can loosen the constraints and the two contexts are now one. Defining distinctly-different contexts based on constraints and allowing only a little overlap if any at all will make it very easy to determine which context you are (or could be) in at the moment.


The following articles and posts, in no particular order, helped me understand contexts along the way. Some influenced my thinking more than others.
GTD: indentifying your contexts by Dragos Roua
Getting Things Done: A Guide To Next-Action Lists by Dan Fletcher
Setting up GTD Contexts… by David O’Hara
Customizing GTD Contexts by Help Everybody Everyday (link changes)
Hint: Ordering GTD-Contexts by Rolf F. Katzenberger
What is (not) a GTD context? by Rolf F. Katzenberger
Designing GTD Contexts by Bruce Keener
Using GTD Contexts Propperly BY Daniel Pataki (dead; available on Wayback Machine)
Why GTD Contexts Are More Work Than They’re Worth (For Me) by Charlie Gilkey
Simply GTD: Do You Really Need Contexts? by Nathan Borror
Context Simplification post on Toodledo forum
Back to GTD: Simplify Your Contexts by Merlin Mann
Using Renaissance Soul Focal Points as GTD Contexts post on The David Allen Company forum.
Toodledo and GTD by Ike O’Ramba

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