In today’s episode, Robert and Todd discuss the simplest way to super charge the effectiveness of your to do lists.

watch time: 31:13 mins

Subscribe to the Podcast


0:00:05.5 Robert Peake: Welcome everyone to this Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name’s Robert Peake, and I’m here with Todd Brown.

0:00:12.2 Todd Brown: Hi, everyone.

0:00:13.4 RP: Hey, Todd. So in this podcast series, our goal is to have a conversation about a variety of topics that are related to well-being, that are related to greater effectiveness in your life and in your work and really all around this methodology called Getting Things Done, or GTD, which a great number of people have embraced to help them have a little more stress-free productivity in their lives. That’s the promise, that’s the goal, and that’s the purpose of these conversations. And as we were talking just now, Todd, we were talking about how often one of the unusual traits maybe of the Getting Things Done methodology, something that differentiates it from other approaches to productivity, differentiates it certainly from the idea of simple time management, is the idea of creating next actions and putting those next actions into contexts on lists. And I think this isn’t something we do naturally, we are not trained to do in life.

0:01:22.0 RP: We’re much more trained to think categorically about how things fit into different categories, red or blue, big or small. And so when people come from a to-do-list mindset or from just any of us in traditional categorical thinking from our school days, this can be a bit of an unusual concept. So we wanted to unpack some of that. I wonder if you wanna take a first stab at some initial thoughts about maybe what is a context in GTD terms? Why we think they’re so useful and important, and what people might need to know that are either coming in new or have been at this for a while and are wondering, “Do I have the right contexts? How do contexts help me? How do I use contexts well?”

0:02:11.2 TB: Yeah, no, I think just reflecting on what you just had to say, I think one of the interesting ideas to begin with is this idea of… Well, it’s really the core idea, in many ways, in getting things done, which is that we don’t keep things in our head. So no matter what your lists look like, in a sense, if you’re in the habit of making lists, you’re probably on your way anyway, to the point where you’re implementing something that starts to look like best practice. So, I just say that because over the last several months as I’ve been working with clients, one of the things that has come up surprisingly regularly is some resistance to, as we say, getting things out of our heads. People say, “Well, that’s not important… ” Comes back to the point you made about categories, “That’s not important. That’s not a priority. I don’t need to write that down, because it’s just not in the big scheme of things, that critical.”

0:03:15.8 TB: And if we move on from that idea and say, “Okay, well, let’s imagine that you’re in the habit of getting things out of your head,” and we imagine the average person’s to-do list, for those people who do keep to-do lists, and in the work we do, of course we see these all the time. And they tend to have a certain sort of common… Certain hallmarks. So they tend to be a mixture of very concrete, very, “I need to call him, I need to email her, I need to… ” Whatever. “I need to text, create a post on social media,” whatever. They tend to be a mixture of those kinds of things, as well as much bigger, vaguer, in many cases, longer term, in many cases, kinds of things, and so there’s a mix in there. And the problem with that, from a productivity point of view, is that when you look at a list which is undifferentiated on the one hand and at the same time has all of these bigger… If you’ve got two things on your to-do-list, one is “Call Sarah” and the other is “Come up with a solution for climate change,” well, you’re gonna be drawn to calling Sarah, not because solving the climate change problem is not a priority, but because it’s just too overwhelming.

0:04:45.8 TB: So that brings us to this idea of next actions. And the thinking behind next actions is, let’s be really concrete about what it is very next that you need to do to do that. So, using the clarifying questions that we recommend as part of the methodology, we could take “Solve the problem of climate change” and ask you, “Okay, what’s the very next thing you need to do in order to get going? What does starting that look like?” Okay, so now let’s imagine that we have a list, which is next actions. Okay, so everything there is something that we could see you do. It’s a physical, visible thing that we could see you do. Now comes the challenge. This is where contexts, I think, are particularly relevant, that most people, if you look at their next actions, they’re going to have many dozens, most people, and in, again, many cases, more than 100, more than 200 in some cases, the challenge there now is, let’s imagine I have a next actions list that’s got 120 things on it, trying to engage with that list is really challenging, a list of 120 things, just to look at the contents of that list and try to make a determination about what’s the right thing for me to focus on next is gonna take you minutes, at the very least. Maybe 10, 20 minutes. Who knows?

0:06:11.4 TB: So the idea behind context is we take all of those next actions and we group them. And what we group them by is where the action happens, or with what tool the action happens. Those are the typical guidelines around creating context. If you read David Allen’s first book, if you read “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” you’ll see recommendations, for example, to have a context list, the next actions list for things you need to discuss with people. “Here are the things I need to discuss with the boss. Here are the things I need to discuss with with my wife,” in my case, let’s say. You’ll also have… The recommendation is to have things like, “These are the phone calls I need to make. These are the things I need to be reminded about on my computer.”

0:07:01.3 TB: And again, just to come back to the why, ’cause I think the why is really critical, so why do we recommend this? It’s simply because we wanna make the next action list as nimble and as supportive as possible. And subdividing the overall next actions list into these contexts means that when I then ask myself the question, “Okay, well, what should I do next? What’s the very next thing for me to do? I’ve got some time free. Before the next thing in my calendar, what should I do next?” I can start with the things that I can do, given where I am and given what tools I have to hand. So for me, that’s… In my own head, that’s the evolution of the idea and the reason that we suggest it. And I guess I’m wondering… Well, first off, anything you think you’d gonna enhance or revise there? But also given… And I’ve talked a little bit about the default context that we recommend. What kinds of hesitance, what kind of pushback, what kind of concerns do you get from people as you talk about contexts?

0:08:11.3 RP: Yeah, that’s great. I just wanna say, I really appreciate how you really started at the beginning with your analysis of context. So many people go straight to the context into which we put next actions. But as I was hearing you talk, I kind of light-bulb moment, actually, of going, the projects list is a context in a way as well. The context there is, I wanna look at the longer-term, multi-step outcomes. And so many people don’t realize that you don’t need to be looking at that every moment of every day. You actually probably wanna look at that more like once a week, to make sure that you have appropriate next actions that are moving you along in that direction. So I really… Anyway, I really appreciate almost the kind of taxonomy that you laid out there of context, because I think it’s really helpful framing for all of that. And so following on from that, in terms of your question, one of the biggest things I hear people say is, “But how do I prioritize? I want a context that is priority one, priority two, priority three. I want a context that will help me focus on the most important stuff.” Because again, as you pointed out, our categorical training has also a lot of impact on how we think about different aspects or areas of our life, different things that we’re doing as essentially important and less important. And we’re very much trained to go, “Focus on what’s important. Focus on what really matters.”

0:09:46.6 RP: But the incredible irony there [chuckle] is that our minds are… Particularly our creative imagination seem to be aspatial and atemporal. They seem to not understand that we can’t do certain things in certain places, or unless we have certain tools, or the third thing, unless we’re in a certain mindset or frame of mind that we’ll be able to do that productively. And so people say, “Well, it’s just one of the real priorities in my life, for example, is getting my garden renovated, getting all the landscaping done for my garden.” We say, “Great. And I’ve got some next actions and things I wanna do there to move that project along. It’s really important to me.” But they’re at work. So the question is, do you wanna do zoom home? [chuckle] Is it that important that you wanna just leave work, take the day off suddenly, go and do that? No, of course not. But your brain doesn’t really, in a way, know that you’re at work. If you’re trying to think about all the great things that you’re gonna be doing with the garden and how important it is all day long at work, you’re really not devoting your brightest and best synapses to the task at hand, which is do your job in your office.

0:10:57.7 RP: So it’s just a funny thing, where famously, I think it was Steve Jobs who said, “You should have three projects in your life, and you should be able to write them on an index card and put them in your front pocket and just focus on that.” But of course, he was famous not only for the iPhone, but for his monomania, really. The Steve Jobs’ route is one where he basically had someone write his biography so his kids could get to know him. So if that’s the approach you wanna take, of super categorical, hyper-categorical, three things matter and everything else doesn’t, you’re welcome to it, it’s an option, but what context allow is that it allows, I think, for the brain to be able to acknowledge the practicalities of what’s possible. And so often we forget that all we can do moment-to moment is what’s possible, what’s in front of us. We cannot go off on these flights of fantasies of vision and long-term things, and again, how great the garden is gonna be, but this brings us back to reality in a way. And so having good context, I think, starts with reality. What is the reality of where you are, of what you have available, of how you’re doing. And in that sense, when people say, “What about prioritization?” I say, “Well, it’s practical prioritization. The very first cut is the practical cut. And your brain doesn’t do that.”

0:12:19.5 RP: Now, it can go off and prioritize things when you’re doing the week review and you’re engaging with projects, and that’s all great, and that’ll probably help you take better next actions and manage your calendar and manage the time element of what you’re doing in the coming week and so forth, but contexts, to me, really are the promise of being able to be present with what’s possible and do that well and to string along those little moments of doing things well into a successful life and career, basically.

0:12:48.8 TB: I love the way you put that, this idea that this whole approach creates the space or creates some awareness in our brains about the fact that we can’t do everything we wanna do at any given moment, that we are limited in that way. And in some ways, when you get to that realization, it’s a bit of a dull, well, of course, moment for… It certainly was for me. But at the same time, as you say, our brains were not wired to be working in… And I mean, working in the sense that being productive in, let’s just say, a professional capacity. In a situation where there’s a lot of ambiguity about what it is that I can do next, there’s… I have a lot of different options, that as time’s gone by, the technology has gotten a lot more varied in the number of tools that I can use, has got a lot more varied. The brain is not really built to dovetail, all by itself, to dovetail with the reality. And so I think one of the things that GTD allows us to do is really to put that join in, to put that… To allow the connection between our brains and our current reality, and that’s why I think it’s so valuable.

0:14:06.4 TB: As you were talking about it… I think I might have mentioned this in a previous podcast that you and I have done together, but there was a blog that got done by one of our associates, David Griffin. And David, hi, if you’re listening in. He did an absolutely beautiful blog, this was several years ago, where he talked about the fact that… He asked the question. It was a bit of a thought experiment. He said, “If you are going to the grocery store with a list of things you need to buy, do you want to see on that list paving stones?” And the answer is, no, you don’t. [laughter] That would be being reminded about something in the wrong context. And I just love that little example of… Because it makes it so clear why it is that context can be so valuable.

0:14:55.2 TB: One of the very first times that I sat down and talked to David Allen about GTD was very early on in my days with getting the business started and getting certified and doing all that, David said something, which is still stuck with me, as I have many things that David said over the years, but he said… In response to a question that I asked him about my own system and how it works, he said, “How do you want to be reminded?” He said, “How do you want to be reminded?” And what I loved about that is there are two ideas there, if you unpack it. One is the idea that I need reminding. My brain can’t do it all by myself. I need the external support. So having some sort of an external system, as we’ve talked about many times, whether it’s digital paper or papyrus, some sort of external system where I have these reminders. But the other thing that he said was, how do you want to be reminded? So what’s important to you about this reminding process? And what that meant for me was, okay, these… To bring it back to this topic we’re talking about today, these contexts that we suggest, the default contexts that we suggest if you read David’s first book, those are suggestions. And they might be good for you. Some of them might be good for you. All of them might be good for you. But, you might wanna change them.

0:16:20.6 TB: And ultimately… I guess the way I quite often put it when I’m doing work with clients is, think about yourself in different situations in your life. You’re on the way to the office, you’re at home, you’re in a meeting with your boss, you’re out and about on the streets of your town. In those various situations, if you said to yourself, “Okay, I’d like to do something productive now,” what would you want to see? And if you do that experiment, what I find quite often is that people go, “Yeah, actually, I quite like this idea.” This happened to me just last week in a coaching. This person has to commute into London. They’re on the train for half an hour plus every day each direction. And they said, “Hey, it would be really helpful for me to have a thing, a list of things that I want to be reminded about when I’m on the train.” There you go. That’s a context. But that was not me saying, “You should have that,” that was her saying, “Hey, this would be a valuable thing. This is how I want to be reminded.” And I think that’s…

0:17:29.1 TB: I’ll just say one more thing and then I’m really keen to hear your thoughts, but this is, again, one of the things that I think GTD brings to the world that I certainly hadn’t seen before my exposure to GTD, is that it has space for us as individuals, it has space for our preferences, it has space for the ways we wanna work, it has space for the tools we wanna use. It’s not prescriptive about those things. And it allows us to come up with solutions that make us more productive, make us more effective and efficient and stress-free, but in ways that make sense for us. So there you go. I feel… As I sometimes say in calls with clients, I desperately now feel the need to stop talking and see what your thoughts are.


0:18:15.0 RP: Well, I was just really enjoying hearing you unpack all of that, because I think so much about the heart of what you’re saying about this being, for you, un-customized is the fundamental message that helps people understand why contexts matter and how contexts can be used for them. So you talked about what do people balk at? Sometimes what they balk at is when we give them a generic list of possible contexts, they go, “Well, I’m working remotely these days. What’s the difference between office and computer?” It’s like, “Well, maybe none for you. Maybe that’s one context.” “Well, the phone thing, I always have a phone.” I go, “Well, that’s great. I don’t always feel like making an outbound call, so I might keep a phone list. You might not. You might jump on those calls or manage that in relation to emails in a different way.” So I think, really, that core concept that GTD is for you and therefore contexts should be for you is really one of the things that when people really get that, they start to embrace rather than question or be puzzled about putting their next actions into contexts.

0:19:30.0 RP: So, I’m curious to hear what unusual context you may have seen over the years, or you may even keep for yourself, anything outside the standard set, I think you mentioned one, but just maybe to help people understand that this really is unique to each individual GTD, or, do you have some examples we can maybe refer some unusual context?

0:19:56.3 TB: Yeah. Yeah, sure. I don’t know how unusual they are, but let me just mention one that I think is a family of context that I think can be very helpful for a lot of people. So, for those of you that haven’t read the book or been exposed to the training or the coaching, one of the things that we recommend people consider is a list called AT computer, so a context called the AT computer. And the thinking behind that is, okay, these are the things that I wanna be reminded about when I’m at my computer, whatever that looks like, whether I’m in the office or whether I’ve got my laptop or whatever, right? Or whatever my computer is. Now, quite a lot of people… I actually remember seeing some social media posts, somebody said, “Well, GTD recommends a list called the AT computer and that makes no sense. Therefore, GTD doesn’t work, right?” Somebody said something along those lines. But anyway, and I do understand… Let me be really clear, I do understand how many people would resist that context, right, because to your point, that’s just the percentage of things that I focus on at any given day that have to do with me being at the keyboard in front of the screen, that’s a big percentage, right?

0:21:10.2 TB: And so having a single list of those things might result in a list of AT computer actions, which would be dozens and dozens and dozens of things, right, which is not gonna be attractive and not gonna support my productivity. So, in answer to your question, what I quite often see people do is they’ll subdivide that list, right? So they’ll have… Instead of just AT computer, they’ll have emails to send, they’ll have websites to browse or internet searches to do, they’ll have… I actually saw somebody not long ago create a new context called, in essence, Things to Discuss with ChatGPT. Interesting context, right? So here are the things… What she was recognizing was that she was getting some initial very positive results out of having some interactions with ChatGPT. And she recognized that, that quite often involved a bit of time, right? It wasn’t just a quick hit, a quick sort of internet search, it was… As is implied by the word chat, it was a bit of a back-and-forth. So that was another computer-based context for her. So that’s really common, I think, and especially as time has gone by and we’ve become more reliant on our digital tools, breaking down the computer list is not a bad idea.

0:22:32.8 TB: I’m also reminded of people that I’ve worked with over the years who are… Or folks who work in tech, developers and folks like that. Quite often, what they’ll do is they’ll break down their computer context by the tool they’re using, right, within the development testing kind of framework, roll out kind of framework. The tool they’re using, they’ll break it down by that. So yeah, that’s just some sort of early examples, and I did love the ChatGPT example, ’cause that’s a very real world and very… And very sort of current. How about you? What have you run into out there in the real world?

0:23:08.2 RP: Well, that’s great, and I love the ChatGPT example too, because it underscores the point that GTD adapts to you and your unique needs, and it also adapts over time. I mean, I came to the methodology back when we were using time design planners and then later Palm Pilots, right? So that gives you a sense of, this is a methodology that evolves with you and evolves with the times as well. For me, I’ve seen a lot of great context over the years. There’s a farmer on GTD Connect who has a context called South Barn. They just have a lot of property and if you’re gonna put on your Wallis and trudge over there, there’s only certain things you can do there versus at the main house or what have you. And I definitely resonate with people doing… Programmers or people in tech that have different contexts like ChatGPT or Jira, or in Salesforce or in whatever kinda tool you’re in.

0:24:07.4 RP: I have one that’s helpful to me that I developed fairly recently, I’d say pandemic era, called Write Record Code. And what I identified there is that those three types of activity, writing a long-form piece, recording a video or writing some software code, all have attributes in common in terms of my willingness to be interrupted during that activity, and the kind of general frame of mind I need to be in to be able to get into that and be able to do a good job of that, that it’s certainly not something I’m gonna do five minutes before a meeting, for example. And it’s probably something that I’m gonna want to do in the morning versus at the end of the day, when I might be a little more ragged or more prone to making mistakes, for example. But my favorite context [laughter].. Context, it always gets a ruffled chuckle, I will say, particularly from British clients, is my home context called Relatively Dry Outside.

0:25:08.9 RP: And of course, the word relatively is one of the keys there in this particular climate in which I find myself. So currently spraying a second coat on the patio furniture is on there because if you’ve ever done any kind of spray painting or spray work, you know that when it’s really humid, it doesn’t go on evenly, and there are other things I like to do outside and hobbies and craps and what have you that’s absolutely pouring down. That’s just not an option for me. No matter how much I’m longing to mulch the whatever, I’m not willing to get absolutely soaked in the process of doing it. So, again, that practicality, that kind of use case approach of it doesn’t matter how much my brain is reminding me that it’s important or interesting or useful or fun, if it’s really pouring outside and I don’t wanna get wet, reality trumps my kind of hypothetical approach to prioritizing or thinking about what I want to do.

0:26:12.5 RP: So, Todd, it is work, I think kinda coming to a close here, I’m curious what… I think we’ve laid out a lot of the flavor of how context can be useful to people, how you can make it your own, some best practices maybe for people who might be struggling with making context their own or coming to embrace them in whatever way, what have you seen work, what have you seen help people to really… What are your kind of top tips for making context work for you?

0:26:41.0 TB: Yeah, I think two things I’d recommend right off the bat, the first is to have a look at sort of the core context that we suggest, just because even if you decide you’re not going to implement all of them, they’re probably gonna provide at least some inspiration for how this is gonna work, right, overall. So have a look at computer agenda, errands, waiting for the various context that we recommend, just as a starting place. And then if you’re not drawn overall to the approach, if you sort of say, “Mm, yeah. It just seems like I’m not there or I don’t really see the benefit of it.” Then what I’ve found can be very helpful is to allow your context to evolve very naturally, and what I mean by that is just start keeping one next actions list, just one. Okay, call it next actions. And as next actions are defined, go ahead and put them on that list. Okay? So as you make decisions about what the very next physical visible thing is you need to do to move things forward, put them on that list. And then once that list gets to be a bit chunky: 15, 20, 25 things, where your sense is, “Hey, this list, when I look at this list, it’s just gonna feel a bit overwhelming.” Then have a look at the contents of the list and see if the contents inform any sort of natural evolution of context, right?

0:28:15.1 TB: Some people going through that sort of process will come up with, “Hey, okay. Well, what I’ve identified here is, there are a number of things that I need to discuss with various people. So maybe I should have a separate list, which is just things I need to talk to people about.” There you go. And just continue that process. And that will then, I suppose… Again, if you’re not really drawn to the sort of generic list, that will then mean that over time, you will have contexts which you have self-identified and therefore, in theory anyway, we’ll have bought into and we’ll have seen the value of, so that’s… Yeah, that’s an approach that I’ve seen work a lot with a lot of people over the years. How about you?

0:29:00.6 RP: That’s great, yeah. And particularly useful, as you say, to be organic in terms of having those expand. I would say in terms of challenging the context and potentially getting rid of ones that aren’t as useful to you, another kind of technique is something we borrow from the user interface, user experience design world called use cases. And all that means is really can you describe the circumstances under which you would go to that particular folder or tag or a piece of paper or whatever it is that has that list of items in that particular context? And if the answer is no, not really. Then it’s probably hypothetical, and it’s probably time to call that one and really get real. So I would say the biggest tip for me is get real with your context, make them real, make them practical, make them work for you.

0:29:50.8 RP: Todd, great conversation. Once again, certainly a lot of, as I said, some aha moments for me. So hopefully that’s the case for those of you out there listening as well. We do do these regularly, so if this was useful to you, please like and subscribe. We also take requests as it were. So this particular one, David had written into us and said, “Hey, can you talk more about context, and particularly in the era of kind of working from home where there’s one big major context where you work in. So hopefully, David, that we unpacked some of that for you and also potentially reached out to the wider group that might be puzzling over context in general.

0:30:31.8 RP: So for now, I would say go and work this, try this, and if you have further questions or thoughts, as I say, we do love hearing from you, [email protected], or go to the Contact Us page on And until next time from me, from Todd, go use those contexts, go be practical about it, and go as we say, “Be kind to your future self.” See you next time.


Share This