Using context to get more things done?
September 24, 2011 7:04 PM   Subscribe

How important is context to getting work done? What are effective ways to manipulate context to get more done?

Most of the things I need to do are computer-based, and I work mostly on my netbook. I'm relatively portable, but this also means that generally I'm not tied down to any particular context. I feel that maybe my contexts (e.g. kitchen table) are too relaxed, and this makes it more difficult than necessary to begin and maintain focus on "work" things.

Is manipulating context useful? What are good ways to use context, and good contexts to use? Are they places, clothes, sound, routines, transitions? The goal is increasing my ability to willingly (and productively) spend time on my tasks.

(What I have to work with: a GTD-like system on Remember the Milk, a timer for Pomodoro-style use, and a notepad in which I keep track of time spent on pretty much everything. Please feel free to give advice not specific to my situation.)
posted by parudox to Work & Money (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure it depends on the person, but contexts matter for me. I have a few I use mostly in dire deadline situations -- I will actually put on a suit at home to work on something that MUST get finished. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture helps me kick the crap out of things that will. not. finish. I also find changing the "persona" on my firefox helps me focus on working when I have to work on the web. I'll use one persona as a "work" persona and a different one as a "fun" persona, until the work one starts to attract too much slacking and then I change it to a new and fresh one for diligent working.

I do think it helps to have a specific place you sit for work, and when you find yourself slacking off, move away from that place to a different place (whether you have a dedicated office and work desk, or whether you just move to a different seat in your living room). I don't really have this right now, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:18 PM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need to figure out what works for you. For example, I work best on my couch with the TV on. Something about the background noise and being comfortable allows me to get lost in the work. Some people can only work at a proper desk in an office. Some people like coffee shops or the library or the park. Play around with your surroundings and figure out where you really feel like you're in the groove.

I use a GTD modification to keep track of stuff, but I can't imagine tracking my time and using timers. That would drive me absolutely batty. So, like I said, you need to experiment to figure out what works for you, because different people are different.
posted by decathecting at 7:19 PM on September 24, 2011

Is manipulating context useful?

Your answers will run the gamut of opinion. Someone will pop in here and tell me that I'm wrong, and that will just be another opinion.

Nevertheless, IMO, it is absolutely useful. If you're working from home, and you do everything in your jammies without taking a shower ... well, you'll feel like a person in their jammies that didn't take a shower. You likely won't be at the top of your game, and your "work life" will bleed into your "personal life" to the detriment of both.

Treat your work like work. Get dressed. Show up "on time." Set boundaries for yourself. When the "work day" is done, stop working.

It's like when someone has a sleep disorder, the first thing a doctor will tell them is to stop treating their bedroom as anything other than a bedroom. Stop reading in there, stop watching TV in there, etc. When it's time to go to sleep ... go the %$@! to sleep.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:21 PM on September 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Depends what you do. For starters, while netbooks work great for "need a computer on vacation while minimizing encumbrance but maximizing battery life", they have really piss-poor screens and processing power for using as a general purpose machine. Even if you don't need the CPU power, get yourself a decent monitor, if nothing else. It will vastly boost your productivity.

As for your specific question - Context matters in how many distractions you have from your actual work - And I don't differentiate there between kids, TV, traffic, or a worthless on-site meeting sucking up time you could instead spend doing actual "work". If your kitchen table lets you focus on what you need to do, go with it; if your cubicle at the office includes constant distractions, find an alternative.
posted by pla at 7:28 PM on September 24, 2011

I use "time", as in, I have to make time in order to have time, if I want to get things done; I only have so much time so I must make it count (because I have small children and I can only use those windows of time where they are not needing my attention, i.e. while they are at school/taking naps/at a babysitter's, what have you). So I guess what I am saying is I have functional deadlines - even if they aren't the actual deadlines for the work I am doing. I have to plan in advance what I'm going to get done, and when.

This works for me because I have a tendency to procrastinate otherwise. If I deliberately carve out specific times to do things, I usually will hustle to get stuff done - and often I am paying for this time in money to the babysitter, or loss of sleep, or loss of time with my spouse (while he watches the kids so I can get something done), which is added pressure to not waste it. Routines/schedules are very important in my life. My days are divided by places I have to be at set times. There's not much flexibility there and that actually helps me, even as it can frustrate me.

I am more focused on tasks if I have enough time to work on them until they are complete. If I am cleaning, I am not done until I have done X, Y, and Z - anything after that is gravy. If I am writing, I am not done until X. If I have a list of tasks, I'm not done until I've checked off X things on the list. If I stop to noodle around for a bit, it's a lot harder for me to go back to what I was doing. So I really try to make it easy to stay focused on what I'm doing - for instance, I play loud music or talk on the phone while I clean so I don't get bored. Basically once I start I don't allow myself to stop until I've reached a solid completion point. I am no good at a half-hour here and a half-hour there when it comes to getting something done, and it is much more satisfying and motivating to me to reach a goal in one shot.
posted by flex at 8:11 PM on September 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you mean atmosphere or environment, not context.

Creating a productive context for your work means doing it in an environment where things around your work help you understand your work and trigger related thoughts about your work. For example, working in a physics lab with charts and polyhedrons and equipment all over means working in a productive context.

Putting on a suit or lighting a candle or starting a Pomodoro timer might put you in a productive mood but none of it will actually shed light on your work.
posted by michaelh at 8:55 PM on September 24, 2011

Absolutely context (or as michaelh calls it, atmosphere or environment) matters. There was a cosmetics company (Avon?) that required its work-from-home employees to dress as if they were going into the office before they made a single phone call - and these were people who were never seen by the customers they were calling! FlyLady co-opted the concept for her housecleaning/organization empire. This is also basically what office dress codes do.

I find that I work better after I've had half an hour or so to goof off on the internet, catching up on news and a few blogs. So I get to work half an hour earlier than I need to be, in order to drink my coffee and do that. Sure, I'm sitting at my desk for half an hour longer than I "need" to, but it's doing something I enjoy and it helps my productivity a lot (sadly, visiting the same sites at home before leaving for work doesn't make me more productive, it just makes me late). I'll sit on the couch to sort photos or surf MeFi, but I sit at the table to pay bills or write blog posts.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:08 PM on September 24, 2011

I pretty much live on my sofa - I work here, I eat my meals here, frequently sleep here and get all my work done with the TV on. What matters to me is being comfortable and being able to 'think' (or step back from a problem to clear my head with a bit of mindless TV) - which I do better on the sofa in-front of the TV than I do at my desk. What also matters for me is having a separate computer for 'play', my work laptop can't play games and I have leechblock installed so I don't get too distracted on websites (I'm a web developer so I need internet/browser access)

If I spent the first hour of my day showering, styling my hair and getting 'work dressed', I'd spent an hour of my working time pissing about on the internet ;)

But if you think that your current environment is not conducive to focusing on work, obviously, these things may matter to you.
posted by missmagenta at 12:20 AM on September 25, 2011

Another way of looking at it is removing obstacles. Offices are boring so the most interesting thing around is the work. I work from home sometimes, and have a dedicated work computer for exactly that reason: it is set up just like the computers at work so that there aren't any obstacles to me getting my work done. No distractions, but also no differences in workflow. Tiny example is having an external mouse connected.
posted by gjc at 10:00 AM on September 25, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers and suggestions! I have been doing more work at libraries and at an office set-up at home, and have also been using certain music or earplugs to help me get started on particular tasks. It seems to work reasonably well, and hopefully experience using those contexts will help me get a sense of what factors are more important for me.
posted by parudox at 9:14 PM on November 12, 2011

Ok, this is not exactly what you asked, but I think it will directly address what you're going for here. It's from Getting Things Done, which is pretty awesome.

The idea is to arrange to-do lists by context, so you have a 'Calls to make' or '@Phone' list, '@Internet' for things you need a computer and the internet for, '@Computer' for things you need the computer BUT NOT internet for, '@Home', '@Office', etc.

Then, when you realize you a free moment (like, killing time waiting for a meeting you showed up for early to start), you can just grab something from the appropriate list and do it (like, banging out a quick call return.)

It's amazing how effective it can be at eliminating these little tasks w/o you even noticing you're being more productive. You're certainly not working any harder.
posted by teatime at 6:34 AM on May 3, 2012

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