A sign of a pensione in an alley.


Some years ago I was ambling down the street of a distant city in search of food, when I remembered something I needed to do when I got back to my hotel room. I pulled my phone from my back pocket and opened my task manager. I tapped out the task and then drew a blank. What context should I assign it?

According to the Getting Things Done (GTD) method, you should always add a context to actionable tasks. Contexts provide a simple way to categorize tasks based on what resource you need to complete the task. Context may be tools (Phone), locations (Home), modes (Errands), and so on.

Tagging your tasks with appropriate context, allows you to filter tasks in your task manager based on what you can do at the time. If you have to be at home in order to do a task, then you probably don’t want to see it when you’re working on your laptop in a coffee shop, or out running errands.

There are plenty of online discussions about the usefulness (or not) of contexts. This isn’t one of them. I find the basic principle sound. My only gripe has been that the contexts suggested in the GTD books don't map well to my life.

I’ve been following – as best I can, which is to say badly – the GTD methodology for about seven years. In this time, I’ve tried many various contexts to see if I can find more conceptual buckets for my tasks that my mind better.

For example, early on I began to use “Out” (location) instead of “Errands” (mode), because I often need to do something out of the house that I would not call an errand.

Ever since I got a smartphone, I abandoned the “Phone” (tool) context entirely. I take my phone most everywhere, so I use “Anywhere” (location) for tasks that require my phone. It’s true that I don’t take my phone in the shower – but then, I don’t generally review my task list while showering.

In both of cases, I replaced a mode or tool context with a location. Sometimes, things go in other directions.

The GTD book recommends a "Computer" context, which is too broad for someone who works remotely and whose main hobby is writing – both of which I do almost exclusively on my laptop. So I use mode contexts, such as "Research" or "Writing", that imply use of a tool (the laptop).

My most inspired change was abandoning the concept of “Home”.

It seems counterintuitive. Everyone has to curl up somewhere to sleep at night and there are things that you can only do in that location.

But there was something about “Home” that always bothered me. It’s a pretty loaded term. When I started using GTD I was more likely to refer to my house as “my flat” than to “my home”. If I used “home” I probably referred to my parents’ house. Even though I didn’t live there, and hadn’t for some time, I still felt that house as the safe centre of the universe. Everything else was just a point in the maelstrom.

So, at first, I used “Flat” to refer to my then current residence. It's not a change that would suit most people. But it reflected current reality, my thinking at the time, and in so doing, reduced the cognitive friction in using my GTD system.

I don’t remember which city I was in when it occurred me that my hotel room was not my “Flat”, and certainly not my “Home”. I needed to refer to it. It was, like my "Flat", a still point, if a temporary one.

I could have used a throwaway context only when travelling, such as “Hotel”. Thinking back, I’m surprised that this didn’t even occur to me. Instead, spurred by this slight difficulty in categorizing a task, I decided to reconceptualize my relationship to all residences.

For a few moments, I flipped through words in my mind, looking for the right one, until I happened upon base. That was it. A hotel room is the local base from which I operate. But I also have a more permanent base. It was my flat, then, as it was my parent's house before that. It would come to be many other things in the future.

I changed the “Flat” context to “Base” and never looked back. I use this context for every location where I happen to be sleeping, including hotel rooms, friends’ houses, tents, hostels, and of course, my own current residence. It has served me well: a context for a vagabond.1

In the last few weeks, I happened to be travelling for pleasure, then work. Then my relationship ended, precipitating a move out of my girlfriend’s house. While searching for a flat, I'm staying with friends. In just three weeks I have stayed at six different “bases”.

David Allen writes:

Your system has to be easy enough (and complete enough) that you will be motivated to work it even when you have the flu. The system is only as good as what you're willing to maintain when you don't feel like it.2

While this time has been chaotic and stressful, my GTD contexts have handled the current instability of my life without strain.

At first, it doesn't seem like its a big change to go from "Home" or "Flat" (locations) to "Base" (also location). But we talk about being "based" in a place, often for employment, with the understanding that we are not rooted there in the same way that we would be with our "home". So "base" is both a location and a mode. Using this word reflects current reality but it also implies an unconscious aspiration. It sets up a predisposition in favour of temporary residences.

We shape our productivity systems to support our lives and they, in turn, shape us.

In certain corners of the internet, folks blog about how they change task managers, or periodically start their productivity system from scratch. Each time they hope to do it right, or less badly, or just for a change. But after such a system refresh, they find themselves in the same old rut. Why? Because there is a symbiotic relationship between system and life, life and system. I sympathize with such folks, for I am one of them.

I wouldn't survive vagabondage for long, but for a short period, it's been fascinating to experience. Poised between where you're going and what you're leaving behind, there is something beautiful and terrifying in bagging your belongings and moving on. And it's hard to pinpoint where the beauty or the terror lies. It all comes at you at once.

I am comforted by something that Cormac McCarthy said in an interview, remarking on his vagabond life. He said, "Three moves is as a good as a fire."3

Moving can be a way to refresh a system, a life. On to new bases!

  1. The pernickety among you may note that using the same context for both temporary and more stable residences may muddle things. But it works out fine in practice. I use start dates to push off things that you can only do when you’re back at a permanent location. ↩︎

  2. David Allen, "Let the Lists Fall Where They May↩︎

  3. Richard B. Woodward, "Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction" (19 April 1992). ↩︎

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