Procrastination Contexts

If you’re using GTD, you know what a context is; and if you’re a human being you probably know about procrastination. One of the goals of GTD is to develop a system in which if we don’t let ourselves procrastinate, or if we do we’re honest with ourselves about why. Whenver you’re staring at a todo item with no clue where to start, GTD can give you you the tools to analyze why you’re not doing it. If a task isn’t actionable it’s usually going to fall into one of three categories: needs to be broken down further, there’s not enough time or attention available right now, or the context you need to complete it isn’t available.

Of these three, context is the slipperiest and gives the most opportunity to trick ourselves into thinking we can’t do something when just don’t want to. If you’re someone who works on a computer and maybe fills a lot of roles (like a developer or designer), the context you need to get a lot of your work done might at first glance be “Computer.” Shit. This is a problem. Everything is in one context now and you’re trying to force yourself to hop between multiple mental states as you work through your todo items. I mean – you’re still @computer, right?. But you live in the digital age and your work has as much to do with mental state as any external factors – so obviously the solution is to create contexts based mental states instead of ones based on a person, place, or thing. Now you’re ready to start working.

Instead of unlocking the power of stress free productivity, however, you find yourself still not getting as much done as you’d like and falling behind on important tasks. You’re still procrastinating. What the fuck?

To understand why this happens, there are two things to consider. The first one is, “What about basing contexts on mental state creates opportunity for procrastination?” The second is how else we can solve the problem of the catch all context.

Why and How We Procrastinate

If I’ve narrowed down a project into atomic actionable tasks, defined realistic time barriers to complete that project, and I’m still not doing much, what’s the holdup? For me the holdup is that I rarely procrastinate on something based on physical restrictions, and I never procrastinate on doing something I want to do. I procrastinate because I don’t want to work on a specific thing, and I am inherently lazy.

This isn’t anything to be ashamed of, humans are all lazy. We’d all rather be playing than working, and most of us work so that we can play. But everyone still has things they need to get done, and some of them aren’t going to feel like play. So if one reason why we procrastinate is that we don’t want to do something, basing GTD conxexts on mental state gives us opportunity to fuel how we procrastinate – with excuses. I’m never going to feel like doing something I hate, and if I leave everything up to my current state of mind I’ll always have the excuse of not being in the right one. If you hate doing bookkeeping, you’re never going to be in that state of mind. You have to force yourself.

The primitive part of our brain is great at tricking us into avoiding work and doing things that are bad for us. If it were up to that part of our brain we’d eat nothing but candy and pizza for every meal. But not all tasks are junk food, and finding time for the ones that aren’t is important. We’ve got need to eliminate the opportunity for that part of our brain to do our thinking. A context needs to be a person, place, or thing. Almost anything else is a procrastination context.

The problem we have now is the same one we started with: having one context which holds most of what we need to get done. The reason something like @computer is a procrastination context to begin with is that it’s not really a context, it’s a super context. Nothing should be added to it directly, and it should have a lot of children to choose from. Switching between one kind task and another on a computer are really different things. Rather than mental state a better way to solve the problem is to break down the same way you’d break down a project. Break down until it make senses sense and you’re left with no reason not start doing things.

For someone who’s a software developer like me, it might be something like this:

  • Computer
    • Apps
      • OmniFocus
      • OmniGraffle
      • Xcode
      • Keynote
    • Online
      • Email
      • Basecamp
      • Freshbooks

I try to break down this list as much as possible whenever I can. Mines actually a lot more extensive than this. the point is to assign tasks to the atomic context which contains the bare minimum to make it happen. There may be some Xcode tasks that I want to do and some I don’t, but the tool to do them is the same. Once I’ve started one Xcode task I can do all of them while at that context before moving on. Even the ones I don’t want to. The point of this for me is that most of my mental states are still mappable to a person, place, or thing. By breaking down contexts to this level I’m able to help the procrastination problem by eliminating any context which can potentially become an excuse.

At least until I come up with more creative excuses.

Collin Donnell @collin