Unusual productivity advice, but it will make sense. It all came home to me as I was editing some CSS code (CSS, or cascading style sheets, are what make web pages look pretty).
In the early days of web there was little control over how things ended up on a web page. HTML – hypertext mark up language – allowed some basic control, like adding titles and marking text bold, but basically things ended up all over the place. Hold on to that thought, because I’ll come back to it.
CSS contains wonderful things called containers (or DIVs). DIVs keep things together. You can also put these containers inside of other containers. Now, you can get into a real mess with this, or it can be a beautiful thing. That leads me neatly on to David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
I better explain. One of the central concepts of GTD is the idea of contexts. For a GTD practitioner, every task has a context. I always interpreted this to be the place where that task could be done – @computer, @home, @phone, and so on. Sorted tasks this way makes a lot of sense. It is a very logical and productive way to file tasks, which means you know what to do when you are in a particular place. You can also see where you need to put in some time, because things need doing in that context (there is a long list), but there is more.
Contexts have another distinction, one which is less obvious for today’s knowledge worker, but one that is equally important. When GTD was written, those physical contexts related to roles that were being carried out: I am being a worker (@office), I am being a parent (@home), and so on. Implicit in the physical context was a specific role.
Today’s blended lifestyles blur those distinctions, especially for homeworkers. Location no longer defines our roles. This is compounded by increasingly ‘multi-role’ or ‘multi-skill’ jobs that many of us have. We are awash with context-blur.
The fact is we need contexts, and clear roles. The containers that are so important in CSS, to keep things in the right place, are important in life too. Contexts, roles, containers. Call them what you will. They create the focus that we need to be productive. Our perceptual systems need focus. In fact, attention is the thing that makes them workable.
Avoid switching contexts too frequently. Computer architects will tell you that context switching (switching rapidly between tasks) is bad for a computer – it slows the machine down and makes it in efficient. It does the same for your brain.
When you are working, stick your head in a bucket (notice how relieved you are to have made sense of that title). Put it yourself in one context and keep it there for a preset time. Be okay with it being there. Don’t feel guilty about the other contexts – you are doing what you are doing. You’ll get to the rest of it later, trust your system to get you there.
I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.
– Abraham Maslow
Above all else, act. And act now. Fretting is the most unproductive of all human endeavours.
“I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words; they ought all to be distilled into actions which bring results.”
– Florence Nightingale
Finally, David Allen makes another key point about contexts: There should be as many as you need, and no more. When you define your roles and contexts, pick the right number. Too few or too many can cause us to flounder.
Bear in mind the cognitive rule of thumb for things that we can hold in our working memory: 7 +/- 2. Less is fine, but if you have over 9, think about trimming.
Contexts serve to bracket what you can’t do now, and what you can do. If you are in the office, you can’t do @home things, and if you are at home, you can’t do @office things. The advantage of filing tasks into contexts is that you know what you need to do when you get there.
And when things go off track?
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
G. K. Chesterton
So do your best to stay on track, but enjoy the adventure if you go a little astray…