~Adding a Personal Touch to Contexts

Part IV of why OmniFocus for the serious GTD’r . . .

If you’ve been using any GTD system then you are already very familiar with contexts. You know, organizing tasks by what you need, or where you need to be to get them done. Some examples include computer, phone, work, home, errands and the like.

While I agree with the premise of contexts, in this day and age, I almost always have everything I need at my fingertips wherever I am. I have a computer, even if its my iPhone, with browser, email, calendar and of course my GTD. And I have my phone, be it landline or cell.  Though it might be sacrilege to say, typical contexts don’t get much mileage in my GTD.

Why Personal Contexts

Where contexts really shine for me is when I make them personal. Meaning, a context is an organization or an individual with whom I interact on my projects.  Here are some examples.

  • I assign a task to a member of my staff – that task gets assigned a context with their name.
  • I delegate a task to someone outside my supervisory control, but who is a resource on one of my projects.  The task is assigned a context with their name.  (Project Managers know the importance of this one all too well.)
  • I have contexts for my managers, and assign that context when the task needs a decision or discussion with that manager.
  • I assign a task to an organization or group context when the individual is not that important to the task’s completion – no special expertise needed.  The group will internally decide who completes the task.
  • I assign a task to an outside agency or contractor.  In this case I may not even know who is working on the task, and I really don’t care as long as it gets done on time.

Nested Contexts

Nested Contexts in Omnifocus
Nested Contexts in Omnifocus

What makes OmniFocus contexts so powerful is that they can be nested.  You can see an example of my organizational context with nested individual contexts here. (names blurred for privacy)

Note the disclosure triangle which allows you to open and close contexts revealing their sub contexts.

So you ask what is the big deal about nested contexts?  Well in reporting for example, you can print or send a list of tasks to an individual by selecting an individual’s name, 2nd level context, or to the entire group, or the group’s manager, by selecting the 1st level context.

Also note the badges beside each context, orange showing the number of tasks that are coming due and red indicating tasks that are overdue.

Using Personal Contexts

My staff really appreciates the lists I send them via email after we meet each week, and I appreciate having the list on hand when I meet with them to discuss the week’s priorities.

When I attend a meeting with my manager, I have everything we need to discuss, simply by bringing up their context.

And whether I’m attending a project meeting, or stop for an impromtu meeting in the hallway, my contexts are always available, since OmniFocus lets me carry my entire GTD with me on my iPhone.  I just click on their name, and everything that I need to discuss with them is instantly available.  No more missed opportunities to get an update or information that would otherwise have to await a call or email.

What Have You Done for Me Lately

Another important use I’ve found for personal contexts is history.  We can combine the power of Omnifocus perspectives with personal contexts to list the tasks completed by an individual in the last day, last week, last month or even the last year.  This is a great tool when you need justification for a new position due to overallocation of a resource, annual performance evaluations, or just to remind yourself or another manager of how much an employee has really done.

Most importantly, this view keeps me out of the, “what have you done for me lately” mode, because I can see at a glance how hard my staff are working.

Here is a screen shot showing completed tasks for an individual context, grouped by period of time completed – yesterday, last week, the last month, etc.  Note the task, project, due and complete dates are also available in this view, making it easy to see how well folks are meeting their due dates, an important consideration in resource allocation and management.

"What have you done lately" Context View
"What have you done lately" Context View

So there you have it . . . my take on making your contexts personal.  Next post, I’ll show you a very cool tool for handling and tracking notifications and updates while waiting for someone else to get something done for you.  Thanks for reading, John.

11 thoughts on “~Adding a Personal Touch to Contexts

  1. Marcel says:

    Hi John

    Thanks for posting this. It was a nice confirmation of my current OF practice. I also use personal contexts as well as recurring team meetings.
    I’d appreciate your view on something that’s bothering me with this system: how do you keep track, for each personal context, of the items you still want to discuss or assign to the person (ie actions on your part) and the items already assigned to the person (ie Waiting For)?

    Regards, Marcel

  2. Alex says:

    Hi John,
    I’m like your idea of using people as contexts, especially for quickly gathering agenda topics. But I’m curious if you specify their context status to be “on hold” or active? It seems that “on hold” may be the right answer because typically you can’t move the project forward if the next action is to discuss or wait-for something from the person.


    1. Hi David – yes. Change to context mode and set the view bar to group by completed, sort by completed, and filter by completed. The group by completed is what provides the headings, “Completed Yesterday”, etc. that you see in this post. Hope that helps and thanks for reading, John.

  3. Hi John,

    What is the difference between Waiting context and Personal context in you system?
    If you delegate some task to John Doe (and want to keep tracking about this task), you put this task to “John Doe” context or to the “Waiting” context with prefix “John Doe:” (eg “John Doe: do something with software”) ?
    How do you deicide what context to use – Personal or Waiting?

    How do you divide tasks you want to discuss with “John Doe” (eg agenda tasks which you should do when you’ll meet John Doe) and task you are waiting from John Doe (tasks delegated to him)?
    Having two different John Doe context (“active” for agenda task and “on hold” for waiting tasks) looks overcomplicated.


    1. Ivan – Good question and the answer is, it depends. If I regularly meet with the person at least once per week, then I assign the task to that person’s context. I do this because before my regular meetings, I print out that person’s context list and use it for my notes during the meeting. If it is not someone who I regularly meet with, e.g. Project Managers fall into this category often, then I assign it to the waiting context and check in with them at the end of the week when I review my waiting context. I do include their name at the end of the task text.

      It would be great if OmniFocus had the ability to assign more than one context to a task. Then I could assign waiting and the personal context and have the best of both worlds. So the way I am handling waiting now is somewhat of a compromise, but it works for me. Hope that helps, and thanks for reading. John

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