September 6th, 2017

The Story Behind Contextual

It’s amusing that we have sent rocket to Mars, getting massive traction on Blockchain technology (Hello, Bitcoin!), and on the mission to integrate Augmented Reality with real life, but still—one thing haven’t solved yet. It's a perfect to-do list app.

Not convinced? Ask Google. If you’re in the market for to do list app, you understand the frustration of switching app each week.

Just like you, I have tried plenty of to do app. Here’s what prevalent: it'll stuck for a week or two, until either:

  1. It syncs unreliably,
  2. I'm delaying them multiple times by snoozing it,
  3. which makes me frustrated.
  4. Then, I got overwhelmed by multiple—undone tasks, or
  5. the app is too confusing.

These pain points have one silver lining: We get frustrated. We didn’t trust the system. The app is overwhelming: It tries to be everything for everyone.

Sure, we can aveliate these problem if we are disciplined. But it's naive to expect human being to be perfect: to finish every tasks before it’s overdue, to organize them perfectly in their respective list.

On Research

On a quest for being my productive self, I start looking for a set of rules, a system that's already proven by multiple people around the world. So I start researching them on internet. Found it. It's called Getting Things Done (in short: GTD). GTD is a chart-topping system made by David Allen—a well know productivity consultant. The community and fan base is enormouse. No surprise I found them everywhere.

Anyway, one thing came to my mind when looking at GTD: it sounds jargon-y. GTD sounds like something that 45 years old executive at big—multi national company will follow.

I quickly disregard it, but GTD is persistent: The positive review and rave are everywhere. Everybody praise it. It's hard to avoid. So, I bit the bullet and start reading the book.

For those who don’t know GTD, here’s the brief rules:

  1. Every task need to be actionable.
  2. If it’s under 2 minutes, do it now.
  3. More that two minutes? ask yourself:
    • Don't need to do it yourself? Delegate it.
    • More that one step (like birthday party)? Add it to project list.
    • Add each task to a list—divided by context (@Computer, @Home, @Phone, @Everywhere, etc).
    • Want to do it on the future? Add it to Someday/Maybe.
  4. Couldn’t be done now? Add the specific date on calendar.
  5. If it’s not actionable, but might be needed in the future, file it as Reference.
  6. Most importantly, review everything. Ideally, everyday.

Unto Implentation

The system works better than I expected. I remember finished The Book in 4 hours. I got excited. Immediately I start to look for to do list to organize my thoughts. I opened my laptop and start researching a GTD based app. Took me a few session to find two of the major player: Omnifocus and Things.

Both have one problem. They're expensive as f*ck (I’m a college student at the time). It’s priced like what I imagined it of: something that only multi-national executive could afford. But the initial research didn't discourage me. I continued my research.

Eventually I found a system that hacks to use GTD on top of Evernote (a note taking application). It’s called The Secret Weapon.

I started implementing it.

First thing to do on GTD: I wrote everything that’s lingering in my mind until there’s absolutely nothing. Took me a solid 2 hours. As cheesy as it may sound, I feel enlightened. It is one of the best moment in my life where I felt super present: I’m fully aware of each word, syllables that coming out from my mouth on conversation. I’m aware on each step that I took while walking. I’m super focused while working: no more “Ah, I forgot” things anymore.

Everything... just flows.

The system works so well until one day, I have absolutely nothing left to do. Everything that actionable are gone. For the first time in my life, I have next to nothing to do at the table. I remember how it felt so liberating and irronicaly, leaving me felt empty at the same time.

Then life continues, assignment came, and as expected—I slack off from the system and start getting overwhelmed again.

Eventually, I need help to organize my life and remember about Omnifocus. I tried it. Initial experience leave me frustrated. Why it's so complicated? The experience reminds me about why I shy away from to do apps. It’s confusing!

Isn't task manager supposed to give you peace of mind? Why instead, they frustrates you?

I can only imagine a perfect todo app. A todo list so simple, that everyone could adding thing on their head—anytime, everywhere, without worrying about organizing them. A todo list that you can trust: the one that sync reliably between devices. A todo list that wouldn't nag you multiple times a day—asking you to check them off when you haven't done yet. A todo list that gave you peace of mind, so you can focus on what matters, instead of leaving you frustrated.


That's the reason I made Contextual—a todo list without frills.

I modified the GTD system with a twist—energy is added as one of the context. My rationale: with the advent of smartphone, everything could almost be done anywhere. What limited is your will-power.

With that in mind, here’s a design decision that I’ve made:

And here's where Contextual really shine. it gave you the ability to focus. Your only job is to choose context and energy that suits you right now. Example:

Hopefully, this design decision will help you to focus on actual tasks instead of being busy organizing them.

Contextual is far from perfect, but it’s a meaningful step in the right direction. If you’re somewhat intrigued by this idea, I invite you to try Contextual. Your feedback is most appreciated. Help me help you design a perfect todo app.

Contextual. A project by Philip Young