CRITICAL NOW! The life-changing magic of urgency zones and a ‘one minute to-do list’

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. This post explores one approach to efficient time and task management, something that would enable us to spend more quality time working with our thesis students. 

Every academic I have ever met (myself included) complains about a never-ending and growing  ‘to-do’ list, which includes: reading and responding to email, meeting with students, teaching, doing and then writing up research, reviewing papers, writing and submission grants, editing a thesis draft, emailing a colleague, evaluating ethics applications, presentations, liaising with industry partners, numerous committee and other meetings. I feel overwhelmed just writing this list, which is not at all exhaustive of the types of tasks we manage daily as academics working across teaching, research and service/administration.

If your workload and ‘to do’ list feels manageable, skip this post. If not, read on.

Four weeks ago, I stumbled across the life (well, work) changing task management approach created by Martin Linenberger, an engineer and management executive. Linenberger describes how he was very busy all day at work, yet still not getting the most important tasks done – which meant more work at night and weekends to meet urgent deadlines. He developed a solution: the ‘one minute to-do list’ that will let your wrestle back control of your workday and “keep you ahead of your busy workload in all situations”.

It is a deceptively simple, yet very powerful approach to time and task management that (I promise) will give you “an immediate sense of stress-relief”. Three colleagues I have informally shared his approach with have  implemented it, and also experienced an almost instant calm. Linenberger has a powerful 3 category approach for conceptualising and sorting your to do task list, asking us to group tasks into what he calls ‘urgency’ zones. While I explain his approach below, his free e-book is more detailed and worth reading – the link is below.

  1. The first zone is called CRITICAL NOW. This “lists everything that is absolutely due to day – just consider what is making you nervous today and would impact you quite negatively, if not completed today.  Writing this list should only take 20 seconds, and generally be only 2-3 tasks (only those most critical, must do NO MATTER WHAT tasks – those that you would stay at work late tonight to finish).
  2. The second zone is called OPPORTUNITY NOW (tasks that need to be done within the next 2 weeks or so).
  3. The third zone is “Over the HORIZON”  (those things that you are vaguely aware of in your subconscious, that you need to do sometime).


By writing everything down, and sorting into this urgency list, you are taking control of your workday (and email) back – you are Controlling Urgency to Focus on Important Work. CRITICAL now must happen today – no matter what; for example, uploading grades, an article review, grant or special issue journal due date – or these submission date! OPPORTUNITY now – while important – are more flexible in delivery time.. you work on them when you can (they are usually due within the next 10 -14 days); Over HORIZON is that growing list of nice things you need to do someday.

I really like the visual nature of the task grouping and putting things over the horizon; this approach has given me a wonderful sense of freedom. On Tuesday, for the first time in what felt like months, I had nothing on my ‘CRITICAL NOW List. Thus, I left work at 3pm and went clothes shopping – with no stress or that nagging feeling that I had forgotten to do something important. Bliss!

Linenberger walks through his approach in much more detail in his free 116 page e-book: I encourage you to download and read it – it really has been positively life changing for me (and you can apply his approach on paper, in a Word doc, or in any task software like ToodleDo; he also has a wonderful approach to email – I can share that later, if there is interest). To download his free, just updated short book, visit:

I hope that this might help you, as it has me, gain back a sense of control over your workday – and find more time to work productively and stress-free with our thesis students.

P.S. If you use another task management system that might help supervisors, please share that below or ideally contact us to write a blog post about it! I think efficient time management is wonderful, it that it gives us more time to work on the things we love most about our job – including working productively and stress-free with our research students.

Image is from Evonne, of her second small paper diary (the one she usually carries with in her handbag to scribble in; a larger ‘Passion Planner’ diary lives on her desk),  reminding her of the three urgency categories. 




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