Ignore your email, cut the coffee, and other ways to stay focused at work

Focus, focus, focus.
Focus, focus, focus.
Image: Reuters/Petr Josek
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This question originally appeared on Quora: How can I improve my focus? Answer by Nelson Wang, founder of and VP at Toptal.

It took me months to write my first book. It failed. I sold less than 50 copies. I made the cover using Microsoft Paint. Some of my friends laughed at the name of the book. And I admit it sucked.

I thought about giving up on writing. I didn’t have any inspiring stories to write about. I had writer’s block all the time. I wasn’t focused.

And then I bounced back. I ended up writing six books, 30 editorial pitches, and countless blog posts.

My next book, The Resume is Dead, had more than 40,000 downloads. I kept writing. Now I’ve been published on Forbes, Inc., Business Insider, Fortune, and TIME, have surpassed 2 million views on Quora, and have more than 4,000 followers and 2,000 subscribers on my blog.

What changed? I learned to implement a system called “The Focus Formula.” I had no idea I was implementing a system at the time. But that’s exactly what it is—a formula that got me to focus.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Meet your new best friend, Pareto. The Pareto principle states that for most goals, 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. Before you even begin focusing on executing tasks, understand where to focus your energy.
  2. 30-minute marathons. For 30 minutes at a time, focus on doing only one thing with all of your effort and energy. Sounds like a sprint, right? It’s not. Focusing 100% of your energy on one task for 30 minutes is a long, sustained period of time. I call that a marathon. When you’re done, take a break.
  3. Be zen. Research dating back to the 1970s shows that Buddhist monks who had practiced meditation for years regularly performed well on concentration tests. During your five-minute break, take the time to meditate. Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and let go.
  4. Honor Edison. Thomas Edison, one of the most iconic American inventors, was also a world-champion napper. Long periods of intense focus often require you to be well rested. Make sure you’re getting high-quality sleep when you can (for most people, it’s around eight hours a day).
  5. Lists. Each day, list out the top three goals you need to accomplish that will make the biggest impact. 
  6. Rising sun method. For the majority of people, the best time to focus is in the morning. Tackle your toughest challenges right when you wake up. Your energy will typically be higher, and you won’t encounter as many distractions.
  7. The single-tab approach. When you work on a task, make sure it’s the only task you’re working on. Get rid of all the distractions. I call this the single-tab approach. For example, when I write for Quora, I typically close out of all other Chrome tabs so that I don’t start perusing newspaper articles, or scrolling through Facebook, or making a Skype call. Multitasking is overrated when it comes to high-quality work.
  8. Batch your emails. Checking your emails and then responding to each email as it comes in is unproductive. In most cases, it’s better to only check your email two to three times a day in large batches, and then to prioritize your email responses accordingly (you can set up email rules in Gmail and Outlook to also help with prioritization, too).
  9. Switch out caffeine with exercise. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise may improve our short- and long-term functioning in brain regions related to attention. I used to drink coffee in the morning. Now I just work out.
  10. Be happy. If you’re in a bad mood, those negative thoughts will often drag you down into a long spiral of worry and fear. Don’t let it happen to you. If you have to, watch a funny YouTube video, have a chat with a good friend, or dance like nobody’s watching. Happiness can increase your focus. If you need more tips, here are 10 on how to be happy in life.

It’s time to turn your focus into results. Let’s go out there and make it happen.

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