How my areas of responsibility contaminated my contexts

My struggles with contexts

I don’t know about you, but I have suffered through long years of struggle with contexts. I adore the idea that David Allen proposed in his work “Getting things done“, but it took me a very long time to get them to work appropriately for me.

I scoured the internet looking for suggestions on how to best organize contexts. There are quite a few interesting articles out there. Nevertheless, I always ended up with a context structure that was way too complex and distracted from my work instead of making it easier.

An epiphany!

Fast forward a couple of years, where I had this epiphany. Now, the way I write it, it must read as if this was a sudden “Aha!” moment. To be more accurate, it was more like a glacial movement in my brain. Now, what did I realize? In order to explain that, I need to go back to the way I used to organize my context. To give you a quick and incomplete taste (just to show the issue …):

  • Places / Work
  • Places / Home
  • Places / University
  • Places / Errands
  • Tools / Tools @work / Work phone
  • Tools / Tools @work / Intranet
  • Tools / Tools @work / Servers
  • Tools / Tools @home / iMac
  • Tools / Tools @home / Home phone
  • Tools / Tools @home / Internet
  • Tools / Tools on the move / MacBook
  • Tools / Tools on the move / iPhone
  • People / Family / Wife
  • People / Family / Kids
  • People / Friends / Friend 1
  • People / Colleagues / Colleagues @work / …
  • People / Colleagues / Colleagues @university / …

Now, looking at it, I see immediately what the significant issue was that caused my problems. Can you see it?

Identifying my mistake

In my effort to properly segregate my contexts, I made the mistake of mixing contexts and areas of responsibility. This led to a significant overcomplication of my contexts.

Now, someone like for example Sven Fechner goes all in when he defines his contexts as a set of physical and psychological boundary conditions. Depending on the location and/or state of mind he can select what he will be doing. That is not an approach that would work for me, but I can see how that would work.

A simple mix of contexts

I currently use a very simple mix of contexts, where I focused on tool changes. After all, one of the key advantages of working in a certain context during a period of time is that I do not need to step outside of that context. I can keep my “tool set” active throughout my work in that context. And that will optimize my use of time. Now, you will see that there are certainly overlaps, but the overlaps to me are less important that the fact that I can really stay in that one context and work my way through what I need to be doing.

I’ve opted not to introduce hierarchies, although I could. I want to avoid confusing myself, so I kept it very, very simple. Let’s explore my contexts for a bit …

Location specific contexts

I use the following contexts:

  • @BTC: my employer
  • @Antwerp Management School: a university management school where I teach
  • @Solvay Brussels School: another university management school where I teach
  • @home
  • @errands

These are physical locations. When I am physically there, these contexts pop up on my OmniFocus screen thanks to my iPhone’s location based capabilities. That is actually the only reason why I created them.

Menial tasks contexts

I use the following menial task contexts:

  • @calls: whenever I have a couple of minutes and my phone with me, I can do calls
  • @emails: I have access to all my email accounts from wherever I am, so this context allows me to send out some emails whenever I have the opportunity
  • @agenda/planning: when I am doing my daily and weekly planning, I look at this context to make sure there is nothing in there that I need to make sure to put in my schedule somewhere.
  • @administration: a catch-all for other menial tasks that need to get done

For these, all I need is a computer or an iDevice and access to the internet.

Shipping contexts

I use the following shipping contexts:

  • @research
  • @thinking/brainstorming
  • @reading/reviewing
  • @writing/analysis

These contexts are where I earn my money. This is where I add my value. What I do here will ultimately lead to some kind of shipping of a “deliverable” which is what I do. You will note that there is no context @teaching. That’s because my teaching is solely calendar-bound. Tasks in preparation for teaching will be part of the shipping contexts as I go through the activities that lead to slides and a document. The same with internal audit work for BTC or consulting work I do from my own small company. They all involve these shipping contexts.

Interaction context

I currently have a single interaction context:

  • @meetings/people

Whenever I meet people, either individually or during a meeting, this is the context I will open to make sure I covered everything I wanted to cover with them. Note this context will not be complete, but it will contain those subjects which I am likely to forget. It does not replace a meeting agenda, it provides me with essential input for that agenda.

Waiting for context

And then, of course, I have the waiting for context:

  • @waiting for

This one I use to trigger follow-up actions. I usually defer the action item until the moment I need to follow-up with the specific people.


Apart from the location contexts, which I established to use the location based triggers on my iPhone, the contexts are (largely) agnostic to my areas of responsibility, which was my biggest problem. Now, there is certainly some overlap between the contexts. If I consider for example the @meetings/people context and the location based contexts, I do meet people usually in the same place … but not always. However, I have established the habit of checking my @meetings/people context right before the start of a meeting or at the end of a conversation, so if anything is in that context, I am quite sure it will show up.


And that’s how I solved my context issue. I know that from very complex I have gone to very simple, but the fundamental use is there: I am able to stay in a context and avoid unnecessary tool changes. And that is what contexts are all about. And there is no longer any confusion with my areas of responsibility.