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Chaotic Workflows Part 3: Satellite Task Systems

Welcome to the Chaotic Workflow series.  It started off as a “A Teacher’s Plight” series after I’d received an email from a teacher having a difficult time with building her workflows.  It’s been a nice jumping point to discuss several ideas related to chaotic workflows in general and so the name’s been changed.

In Part 1, we defined chaotic environments and considered an important difference between task management and workflow mastery. In Part 2, we looked at shaping our environments by several methods of saying “no”.

In the last post, we started the idea of addressing chaos considering at least three major categories. Today we’ll look at the second:

  1. Saying “No”
  2. Satellite Task Systems
  3. Creating Space for Practice

Satellite Task Systems

A “satellite task system” likely sounds more fancy than it is. The term “satellite” only means something that stores tasks external to a central system.  You already are probably using them from time to time, but when you learn to use them deliberately, you can build them into more supportive workflows.

OmniFocus is excellent in maintaining a central set of tasks. From OmniFocus, we can orchestrate any number of habits, workflows, projects and more into days, weeks, and years.

But, there are times when a scrap of paper is more useful, such as when we need to get someone’s phone number, and we don’t have a phone around. Later, when at OmniFocus, we can transfer the information from the paper to OmniFocus as a @Call task.  Or we can add the number to a Contacts application for future reference. In this case, the scrap of paper was helpful because of its immediate convenience. It functioned as a satellite task system, albeit a temporary one.

An even simpler example of a satellite system can be a bookmark which holds the intention of continuing to read a book from a particular point. If we wanted, we could then integrate the book reading project with a central system with a repeating task in OmniFocus that says, “Continue reading book”.  That way, we could see the “Continue reading book” task in a daily list and then pick up where we left off using the bookmark.

A more complex example could be another task system entirely.  For example, we can have a project to “Prepare Chicken Parmesan” in a cooking application while a task to go to that application would be in OmniFocus.

Pen & Paper Satellite Systems

In some environments, pen and paper may be more conducive to the work at hand. They can be particularly useful when:

  • We need to write and retrieve information quickly
  • Screens and computers would otherwise be distracting


As an example, I prefer to use pen and paper when with clients or at home in the evenings. I don’t have to deal with the draw of the Internet or the distraction of a computer.

When I am with clients, I use a pad of paper to write my thoughts and keep track of the flow of conversation, my own associations, among other ideas. Sometimes during the session, I have an idea that I wish to share with my client. But I also don’t want to interrupt my client’s current train of thought.

So, on the pad of paper, I draw a checkbox near what I have written, perhaps with a note of what I’d like to say. When the opportunity within the conversation arises, I can return to my notes and see a clear signal about where to return and its context. When I do, I mark the task complete.[^fn1]

At other times, I have thoughts unrelated to the session (“Crud, we’re out of milk at home”). In these cases, I’ll add a task (“Get milk”) to the top of my pad of paper. After the session with the client, I transfer these sorts of tasks to OmniFocus, and cross them off the paper.

I can imagine that in a chaotic environment such as a teaching scenario, the speed of pen and paper would be useful. In addition, pen and paper allows for a certain messiness/creativity that is just not found elsewhere.  I’ve tried to use a stylus and still find the experience to only be superficially similar.

Use & Caution

When using a satellite pen & paper system, consider creating a method to alert yourself to tasks you may like to transfer to OmniFocus when done with the individual session of work. One method is described above.

When using a satellite system in general, it is crucial to acknowledge the purpose of both the satellite and the central systems. Eliminating identical tasks is essential. If identical tasks appear, what is done and what is not may become unclear.

[^fn1]: I fully understand that this may seem to be an overkill method of maintaining a conversation but when emotions are running strong, maintaining a map of ideas is essential.

Originally posted at

What is Productivity?

Productivity is many things. For some, it is about doing a lot in a little time.
But, truly, productivity is so much more. It is about:

  • Setting yourself up for success.
  • Being focused where you want to be.
  • Doing things that you find meaningful.
  • Being creative, sometimes even in harsh environments.
  • Forging your own paths.
  • Finding your voice and delivering it well.
  • Knowing and actively deciding on your obligations.
  • Knowing where and how to say “no”.
  • Avoiding procrastination.

Too often, many of us fall into just going along with and fighting whatever the world throws at us. “Go with the flow!”, we say. Meanwhile, we might think, “I’d like to do that one thing. Maybe one day I will.” The days go by. The goal never arrives, and then we wonder why or blame circumstance.

But when we learn to take charge of our lives and the world
around us, we start living life with intention.

“I should do that,” becomes “This is how I start”. Deliberately forging a path to our goals and dreams, we figure out what we want in life and then start taking steps there.

Of course, striking out may seem scary. It takes courage to live life with purpose and on purpose. Roadblocks and worries, fears and concerns show up everywhere.

This is my passion. I want to help you to find that sense of your own unique play to meet the world so that you can:

  • Create a life that is yours.
  • Find and follow an inner guide in a way that works for you and those you care for.
  • Decide on your obligations and meet them while building the world you want.

Productivity Journal

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