Contextual Focus Blocks
A simple way to move more effectively through your to-do list.
Of all the factors driving your productivity, task switching—the ability to move effectively and efficiently from one task to the next—is the most important. The time spent in between tasks is one of the biggest sources of waste in any productivity system. Inefficiency in your task-switching also creates a prime breeding ground for distraction. After all, it is far easier to go react to what's in your inbox than it is to agonize over what you should be working on.
Ironically, depending on how it is implemented, a task management app can actually make task switching more difficult. If you've ever used one of these apps for any period of time, you've likely experienced this. Opening up an app only to be greeted by a list of dozens or hundreds of individual to-dos is overwhelming. This leads to excessive task-switching time as you struggle to select which task to focus on. This overwhelm can also create difficulty focusing even after you've selected a task as other items from the list continue to linger in your subconscious, consuming precious short-term memory. No one is capable of reaching maximum effectiveness when their brain is continually wrestling with a mile-long list of to-do items like this.
Contexts help, but they're not perfect
An idea borrowed from the "Getting Things Done" framework, contexts are an effective decision-making aid when it comes to deciding what tasks to focus on. The idea behind contexts is that a given task will require certain conditions to be present in order to accomplish it. For example, getting milk requires you to be at the grocery store while writing a blog post requires you to be uninterrupted at your computer for an extended period of time. In this example, "grocery store" and "focus time" might be two contexts in your productivity system. By grouping your to-dos into contexts, you can quickly filter your list to only show grocery-related tasks when you're getting ready to head to the store, and only show focus-related tasks when you're deciding what to do during your early-morning focus session.
Contexts were originally coined when Getting Things Done was published in 2001. This was well before the days of ubiquitous mobile computing. At that time, it was easier to draw clear lines through your task list. Looking up a plumber or a mechanic, for example, required that you be at a computer (or a phone book, if you remember those).
Today, contexts are not so simple. Smartphones, tablets, and high-speed wireless connections make it possible to get work done anywhere, anytime. Additionally, if you're a knowledge worker sitting in front of a computer for eight to ten hours a day, environmental conditions are more or less static the entire time you are working. These factors make the use of contexts to drive productivity decisions more difficult and nuanced.
Using contextual focus blocks
This challenge is what led me to develop the idea of "contextual focus blocks". Instead of relying on environmental conditions, using contextual focus blocks allow you to create your contexts using time blocks on your calendar. Examples of this include:
A two-hour block every Thursday morning to focus on strategic planning
A one-hour block every morning to do creative writing
A 30-minute block to check-in with your team regarding a mission-critical project
A 90-minute block on Friday afternoons to perform weekly-close-out tasks
For each contextual focus block, you can then create a corresponding filter in your task management system. So, for example, when your strategic planning focus block occurs, you can easily jump straight to a list of only tasks related to that project.
This system works because it decouples two distinct processes that often get unwittingly lumped together. At its core, productivity can be boiled down into two parts—planning and execution. If you're not mindful, these two processes easily get mixed together throughout the day. This is a recipe for inefficiency. Using contextual focus blocks gives you an edge by separating the planning from the execution. By laying out your focus blocks ahead of time, you vastly increase the speed with which you can move from one set of tasks to the next throughout the day. These increases in speed may seem small when viewed in isolation. But over the course of weeks, months, quarters, and years, they create a tremendous advantage.
Separating the planning of your work from the execution of it also allows you to be more deliberate in how your day is structured. In this way, you can optimize your workflow to match your natural energy levels. For example, you could create a block to focus on "quick hits"—tasks that take five minutes or less and do not require a lot of brainpower—into a place on your calendar when you are likely to be running low on energy. You can also match your work to environmental conditions. For example, you could group tasks that require the most intense focus into a block of time on your calendar when you know you are least likely to be interrupted.
Enabling efficient and effective task-switching is one of the pillars of any successful productivity system. This is because your productivity is simply a factor of your ability to make good decisions about what to focus on and when to focus on it. Using a task management system is a foundational component of making these good decisions. But without an additional layer to assist with the decision-making process, a task management system can itself become a source of inefficiency and overwhelm. The use of contexts can help reduce this overwhelm. In isolation, however, even this method can fall short, especially if your environmental conditions remain relatively static through the typical day/week. The use of contextual focus blocks on your calendar allows you to deliberately and methodically create your own contexts. This approach maximizes your productivity by enabling you to move quickly and confidently between tasks.