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Contextual planning

What is contextual planning

What is contextual planning?

Contextual planning in time management is when we plan not according to time or date, but according to certain conditions, parameters, or circumstances. It doesn't involve any rigid framework or deadlines and therefore can be used in cases of acute procrastination or excessive workload - when you need to be flexible and reduce stress. This technique has its own special approach to grouping and building a list of tasks. It is recommended to use this type of planning when standard planning doesn't work.

One of the first to demonstrate this concept was the writer and researcher Robert G. Cope. He claims that all activity of human organizations should be built on contextual planning in order to be effective, since this is the way natural organizations are built. In nature, all events are connected to external and internal factors, and not to a schedule or willpower. The American writer Alvin Toffler, well known for his futuristic concepts of post-industrial society, also considered contextual planning to be the most adapted form of planning for the modern man.

Contextual planning can also be an alternative to strategic planning. It can be applied not only in one's personal life but also in the framework of business development.

Contextual planning in a nutshell

Contextual planning in a nutshell

To understand what exactly the contextual planning method is, it is first worth remembering what regular planning looks like. When you receive a new task, be it personal or work, you open your calendar and schedule it for a specific day - for example, today, tomorrow, the weekend, the end of the month, and so on. This is called the calendar method, and it doesn't work for everyone. You can simply forget what you have planned for a certain day if you don't check your journal every hour, or you might not have time to complete the task because something else comes up. It's also possible that you simply won't want to complete the task on that particular day - just out of pure laziness.

Contextual planning takes into account the shortcomings of the calendar method and therefore suggests linking tasks not to dates, but to conditions or a specific context. Thus, contextual planning consists of only two components:

  • Flexible tasks, which, unlike rigid ones, don't have to be completed within a certain period, but only when certain circumstances arise;

  • Contexts, which are also called "Kairos" - as opposed to "Chronos", which means time. Contexts can happen at any convenient or opportune moment that is perfect for doing a particular thing. That is, the very circumstances or conditions for doing it are perfect.

Contexts can also come in different types. The contextual planning technique involves the following:

  • Places. The execution of the task is associated with a specific place in which you must be for this to happen. For example: "get a statement when I'm at the bank next time", "buy tomato sauce when I'm at the store", or "wash my clothes at home".

  • A person or group of people. The solution to the problem is connected with certain people, that is, it's simply impossible without them. For example: "I'll discuss a salary increase with my boss when I see him" or "I will ask for a new topic for my thesis when I meet my adviser."

  • External circumstances. The performance of the task depends solely on factors that do not depend on you. For example: "I'll study this issue if a new law is passed" or "I will ride a bike if the weather is fine."

  • Internal circumstances. The solution to the problem depends on your internal state at the moment and your physical or psychological ability to complete it. For example: "I'll sign up for a course as soon as I get better" or "I'll meet my friends when I'm in a good mood."

Contexts can also be combined, but note that this makes the task more complex and it may take longer to complete. For example, you might say, "I will ask for a bonus when I see the boss in a good mood."

If you are afraid to deviate from the calendar method of planning, then contextual planning also helps by making dates flexible. Here is a list of possible contexts below:

  • Schedule. The execution of the task is tied to a certain period, but not a fixed one. For example, on the way to work, during a lunch break, before going to bed, etc.

  • Times of day. For example, evening, afternoon, or morning.

  • Days of the week - but not dates! For example, holidays, weekends, weekdays, Thursdays, or Saturdays.

  • Seasons or months. For example, do something in the fall, the spring, in April, or in September.

You can also improvise and come up with your own contexts. The main thing to remember is that they should help you group tasks according to some of the same criteria for solving them while allowing you to be flexible at the same time. Also, a task can have any number of contexts, in theory. So, to put gas in your car, you first need to get into it, then drive past a gas station, have money with you, etc. It's best to choose the simplest context and plan everything around it in order to minimize so-called "context switches". This reduces the likelihood that you will get confused and forget something. This is because the basis of contextual planning is not written or receptive fixation of information, but is based instead on associative memory. Simply put, the main point of contextual planning is to keep tasks in your mind and remember to do them at specific times, and not by writing them down.

By the way, there are always tasks that will be out of context. They can be combined into one group, which can be called "out of context", that is, you do them when there is nothing to do or when there are no other contextual tasks.

Note! Flexible contextual scheduling is used for flexible tasks. That is, it is not suitable for compressed projects and urgent cases that are time-sensitive. For example, if you urgently need to pass an exam or defend a thesis. In this case, you can use the context while preparing for this exam, if there is still enough time before it, but not for the actual exam.

Steps of the contextual planning technique

Steps of the contextual planning technique

Contextual scheduling is as easy to follow as calendar scheduling. The steps of the contextual planning technique include:

Step 1: List all personal contexts

Make a list of all those contexts that suit you and which correspond to at least 7 of your current tasks (after all, it is best to focus on one, or a maximum of two types of contexts). To do this, you need to evaluate your lifestyle, profession, and habits, as well as focus on your current to-do list. For example, if you work remotely, then the context of location is clearly not suitable for solving work tasks, but the context of "when he is online" will do.

Step 2: Group cases by selected contexts

Place the things you need to do on a context-specific list, depending on which one the task best fits.

Step 3: Create a checklist or action plan for each task (optional)

You can act the same way as in any other planning when you are faced with any large task - break down and identify the steps necessary to achieve the goal. After all, linking to context, like linking to a specific date, only helps you remember or understand what task is the most worth doing and when. However, contextual planning does not help, say, track your progress or make a list of specific actions. Here you will need to use more traditional techniques.

Step 4: Start making a to-do list for the current context

One of the steps in the contextual planning technique is taking real action, that is, using a to-do list for its intended purpose. For example, you are about to leave the house and go to the store. Focus on the context of the place or the "store" and check to see what things you need to do when you are there.

Contextual planning tools

Contextual planning tools

This all depends on your imagination, resources, and preferences! However, the most convenient and popular contextual planning tools are:

  1. Undated journal. A colorful notebook with rings is best. This way you can divide the entire notebook into several sections depending on the context and easily navigate between them.
  2. Stickers and bookmarks. If you already have a standard journal and don't want to give it up, then you can just buy colored markers or stickers to indicate a particular task in context. For example, tasks for the office will be highlighted with a blue sticker, tasks for the evening will be highlighted with black, etc.
  3. Context cards. You will have to make these yourself. To do this, take thick, unlined index card-sized paper that you can carry with you or put in a book, textbook, or in your pocket. You can make these cards any way you would like to. They can be like business cards or even checklists. You can also highlight them with different colors and stickers to make it easier to find the right context. As a rule, it should take no more than five minutes to prepare one card, and it should last an average of two to three weeks. Try it!
  4. Boards for contextual planning. This tool is very visual and somewhat resembles a mood board, but is more structured. You can use any material for the board, but it is easiest to work with cork boards or magnetic boards. Just divide the board into columns according to the context and attach a sticker with a task to the desired column. There can also be several boards - one board for work tasks at the office, another for home tasks on the refrigerator, etc.
  5. Software solutions. Any task planner is also suitable for contextual planning. The most popular is SingularityApp, where you can group tasks using hashtags and highlight them in every possible way with fonts, emojis, and formatting. MS Outlook is also often used. Each task can be assigned to one, or even several, categories. For example, schedule "discuss the project" with both the "office" and "colleagues". And the electronic planner will never be lost and will always be with you on your smartphone or PC!

How to learn contextual planning

Contextual planning only means that you make your to-do list differently. But it is still important to follow the same principles on which any time management is built. Specifically:

  • Consider task priority. You should work on the tasks that are of the greatest importance to you. That is why contextual planning should also be combined with, say, the Eisenhower matrix. These two approaches can be used in parallel and can be alternated from time to time.

  • Organize. All lists should be simple, clear, and visual without causing confusion and unnecessary complexity in order to focus on their implementation and not waste extra resources.

  • At the same time, you need to fight against procrastination. If you are experiencing chronic fatigue, stress, or emotional burnout, then first of all you will need to eliminate them, otherwise contextual planning may be ineffective.

You can master the art of planning both on your own through practice and in Lectera's online training course "Planning and Delegation in Business". You will master strategic, tactical, and operational time management and learn to cope with the ways of thinking that cause procrastination and waste time. Furthermore, you will discover how to evaluate the complexity of tasks and use the critical chain method.

With contextual planning, you can not only minimize the number of deadlines and schedules in your life but also turn doing things into an exciting adventure! The key is to adapt it to your life and experiment with it to see what works best.