Back in 2002 color screen phones had just made their debut and it took about 16 seconds to load a webpage.

David Allen’s famous book “Getting Things Done®” suggested that a core part of our task list should be defining a ‘context’ for each task. Context used to mean ‘available tools or people’ back in 2002 – tasks for the office computer, or a library, and tasks for the next time you meet someone.

Now that we can do most things anywhere, this extra layer of bureaucracy has been largely abandoned by many people following GTD.

‘In his original book Allen used four criteria for selecting the action you should work on next:

  1. Context — availability of tools like phone, computer, internet connection, office)
  2. Time — time you have at hand, e.g. before the next meeting starts
  3. Energy — the level of attention you can devote to the task
  4. Priority — if you still need to choose between tasks which one is most important’

For many of us Time and Priority are the only essential ones there.

Energy level categorization is a luxury when we’re at work and overwhelmed by outstanding tasks. It can be very useful depending on how much work you have and the type of work you do.

Context in its original definition has been supplanted by the smartphone where ‘available tools or people’ no longer really applies to most of our tasks. Of course there are still things we’d prefer to do at our desks or on the train home so Contexts can still have a place (no pun intended) in many people’s GTD setup.

But exponential complexity is one of the pitfalls of GTD for many people. It is easy to get caught up in perfecting the system rather than getting on with the work as Merlin Mann explained in this great post. And Contexts are big culprits here. Complex systems take more effort to maintain and use, and categorizations  like Contexts or Energy Level can .

The New GTD ‘Context’

The new version of contexts is actually just a mixture of the time and energy categories from Allen’s original list, along with some basic locations such as office and home and perhaps a select list of people who you interact with regularly and delegate work to.

Sven Fechner has a great list of folders that is a good example of this new framing for GTD Contexts:


  • “Short Dashes — Everything that is done in a very short amount of time (typically 5-10 minutes); This includes looking things up, writing an email (something I kept separate for some time during my experiment, but came to realised that emails are mostly short dashes as well), setting up a meeting, doing your bank business or buy a new app
  • Brain Dead — Whenever I am low on energy, which happens at least once a day, I need tasks that I can do without a great deal of thinking such as submitting my time card, file and tag documents, fill-out some stupid Excel sheet or upload the pictures from the last weekend trip
  • Routines — Things that keep me and my system going and most importantly protect sanity; Tasks like my Weekly Review require a special sort of time and attention to properly engaged with
  • Full Focus — That’s the big one, the “quality and uninterrupted time” and “high energy” Context; This is where tasks sit that really define the work that I am doing; Be it writing a proposal, a blog post or a long email, analysing a complex Excel, intense research or designing a PowerPoint presentation or website; I at least set aside 90 minutes per day to just work on one or two Actions in this Context and I basically go “offline” during that time
  • Thinking — We all have these projects that we need to think through, whether you do mind mapping or just sit on a bench and watch nature, there is again a special kind of time and attention you need to have and devote to think things through
  • Calls — I kept this one separate although you could think this may fall in to “Short Dashes” as well; (Video) calls in the sense of one-on-one conversations however are quality interactions since they are still the next best thing to a physical meeting; I want to make sure I devote the right time and attention to them as the people I interact with deserve nothing less than this
  • Hanging around — That’s when you have quite some time, but relative low energy levels; I find myself in more of a “consumption”-mode during this state and prefer watching some educational videos, read some articles or catch-up on a recorded WebEx call; Very often I look at this context in the evening, surfing the sofa with my iPad.”

Using Contexts in Gmail

Gmail is a great vehicle for using contexts with email-based tasks because unlike other email clients, an email can be attached to several contexts at the same time rather than just one ‘folder’. This is because Gmail uses a system of labels to categorize emails. You can add as many labels as you like to an email so it can be in several different Contexts.

So, adding contexts to your tasks coming through Gmail can be as simple as creating new labels for the contexts that make sense to your workflow and job role.

But ActiveInbox (our Gmail extension) lets you takes this a step further by letting you easily add new tasks that originate outside of email to your Gmail so you can track everything from one place, and giving you essential task features to track everything like reminders, notes and checklists inside emails.

Adding new task in Gmail

How you set up your Contexts is a matter of personal workflow. Sven Fechner’s approach is to mix traditional place contexts with energy level and time categorizations in one section. This makes a lot of sense as having all the different situations for work in one place makes things easier when looking for the right task list.

Again, the risk as always is creating too many of these categories which means that you forget some exist and never remember to look for tasks in them when you are in the place, mind-set or other situation that you have created the list for.

Gmail GTD contexts sidebar


ActiveInbox has an extra trick up its sleeve. You are encouraged to mark each important task based email as a To-do item for yourself to work on later or as Waiting-on item when you want to keep track of things that are out of your hands and you need to remember to follow up on things.

Any email that has a reminder or one of these tags is now a task and will show up in your context folder for you to rank, group and sort.



You can start using Gmail for your GTD contexts now with a 2 week free trial of ActiveInbox:

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This was written by Andy Mitchell