Contexts are the meta-data for our to-do lists. Not all tasks are created equal. As our workdays become increasingly complicated, we need efficient ways to focus on the things that matter. This starts by adding deeper meaning to the items on our to-do lists. Here are some ideas of contexts that go beyond the norm to get you started:
An energy-based context works incredibly well because how we are feeling energy-wise is something we can recognize no matter where we are. Using this context allows you to move things forward even when you're not feeling up to certain items on your to-do list.
I assign high energy to anything that is going to take a lot of my mental energy, low energy to anything that is fairly easy to complete, and normal energy to anything that falls in between. Using an energy-based context requires honesty. If you’re feeling great, then do the things that require higher levels of energy — don’t cheat yourself by doing something lightweight instead.
One of the greatest benefits of using an energy-based context is that if you’re not feeling all that well (or even have called in sick), you can still make some progress with low energy tasks. Even the smallest steps forward are at least steps that are moving you in the right direction and a few low energy tasks can sometimes give you momentum to tackle the bigger fish.
If you’re trying to manage your time and tasks for different parts of the day, then using a time-based context to enhance your to-do list is a smart move. These contexts are especially useful if you’re trying to work on building a business outside of your day job, which often requires work outside of "normal" office hours.
Let’s use your inbox as an example. You will want to check email more than once per day, so writing “check email” won’t be nearly as effective as “check morning email” and then assigning it with the morning context. The flipside of this is that you may only check email three times a day and assign contexts like morning, afternoon, and evening to the task "check email," which will keep you out of your inbox a lot more (which is usually a good thing) and completing that task only during the assigned time of day. Further, when you find yourself feeling “lost” in the midst of your day, you can just look at the appropriate column on your list and get back on track.
Another former president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, used a decision-making tool widely known as "The Eisenhower Method" (although it was popularized years later by Stephen Covey as "The Priority Matrix"). The Eisenhower Method offers four categories for tasks: urgent/important, not urgent/important, not important/urgent, and not important/not urgent.
These work well because it allows you to quickly decide whether or not it is something that needs to be done now, later, or perhaps not at all. You’ll get better awareness with tasks and projects that are more important as well as more urgent, which allows you to complete your to-do list in a more balanced way (as opposed to just focusing on every item on your to-do list and not getting to the important stuff on it in time). Again, not every task is created equal.
Your to-do list item of “washing the dishes” does you little good at the office. To help you focus on the right task at the right time, try dividing your tasks by their location. For example, tasks or projects that are purely work-related can be titled as work, while ones that are life-related can be labeled as life. This context is especially useful for remote workers or freelancers who can easily be reminded (and distracted by) household chores throughout the workday.
Keep in mind that you can use a combination of these context types. No matter which way you decide to go, it's important to add meaning to your to-do list in a way that uniquely makes sense for your workflow.
Mike Vardy is a writer, speaker, and productivityist. He is the author of The Front Nine: How To Start The Year You Want Anytime You Want, and co-hosts Mikes on Mics on the 5by5 network. You can find him on twitter as @mikevardy.