A sustainable formula to improve concentration and focus

  • focus and concentration improvement

Many people find it hard to stay focused on a good day. As a business owner, days tend to be packed from start to finish, requiring you to work endless hours and deal with a multitude of issues. How do YOU stay focused on relevant tasks when it becomes hard to keep up? Have you ever thought of creating your own “focus formula” to help you stay on track? In this part1 1 of 2, we’re going to revamp your day with tips backed by science so you can become your most focused and productive self.

In particular, we are going to tell you exactly the number of times per day you should be checking your email and how getting your blood pumping keeps you focused for hours. Everything you are going to read is fully backed by published research. We’ve gone through hundreds of papers from the psychology, neurosciences, and biochemistry fields. All of the information here has been vetted by our team of PhDs, so that you can have the fullest confidence in the recommended actions.

We are going to use a prototypical day of an entrepreneur to guide us through the process. Sure, this may be an overly simplified version but it is an example for you. Implement this focus formula in your day and watch your focus and productivity improve.

Part 1

Wake-up, shower and eat breakfast

Hit the Gym

Check email, grab coffee

download app

Get to the office

Part 2

Emails and meetings

Lunch (if you find the time)

Meetings/research/more emails

Reading/relax (is that a thing?)

Before bed: more emails

Let’s dive into some actionable methods and build your focus formula


1. Understand the Pareto principle (work smarter, not harder)

pareto principle

source – AsianEfficiency.com

In this section, we’re going to go over 5 ways to understand/implement this concept.

First things first, the Pareto principle is very simple and extremely powerful. In the event you’ve never heard of it, it states that 20% of your time makes up 80% of your results.

20% of your time makes up 80% of your results.

Why is this such a valuable rule upon which to build our focus formula? Because if you can figure out which 20% of your time drives 80% of your results, you can focus on those aspects, thus allowing you to become the most productive version of yourself! Here’s how to take advantage of the 80/20 rule throughout your day:


i) Short-term hindsight is a powerful tool

Stop and think for a minute: what do you get done in a typical workday? Chances are, you aren’t optimizing your workflow as well as you could be. By rating and keeping track of your daily activities, you will learn about the tasks you should be focusing on.

Here’s your task:

Duration: 10 minutes before the day begins for 1 week

  • Write out all of the tasks you need to complete during that day
  • Once you have this list finalized, assign a rating to each task (1 being most important; don’t overthink this)
  • Attach timestamps to each task throughout the day from when you started to when you finished (if you’re using google calendar, this is already done for you!)

The next day before you repeat the process, review the previous day.

  • Re-rate these tasks based on how much time they took to complete and the value of the completed task
  • Identify the most important three tasks and use this as an anchor for when you repeat the process

This may seem intimidating but you’ll find out where you’re wasting time, it will allow you to structure your tasks and organize your day effectively. This activity allows you to evaluate what you thought was important when you started the day vs. what was actually important in hindsight. Our brains quickly learn to categorize and predict patterns in the changing environment leading to quick improvements in productivity.


ii) Grow your business by teaching your team the short-term hindsight technique

Entrepreneurs are prone to the rationalization of, “I can do it myself” and end up spending 6 hours on some task that isn’t quantifiable. Sure, sometimes you have to do everything when you start out, but realize that irrelevant tasks prevent you from doing what’s important. Now that you’ve identified your most important tasks in a given workday, instill this framework into your employees and pass on unnecessary tasks.

Teaching your team how to identify and understand their tasks is a big part of being an effective leader. By following this framework, not only will you be able to identify the tasks you should be passing on – saving you time and energy – but you’re benefiting your business by providing a more productive structure for the team.


iii) Focus on your most effective time slot

Everybody has a time of day where they get their best work done. Leave that time slot open for more daunting work.

How do you figure out this timeslot? Let’s dive into the science.

  • Our bodies run on a 24 hour circadian cycle which increases and decreases body functioning such as body temperature, heart rate and hormone secretion. It turns out, these changes have pronounced effects on our cognitive functioning such as decision making. Research shows that we tend to have the most mental energy in the morning.
  • As our bodies and minds run on cycles, taking short breaks are also essential (use the pomodoro technique). Try it, do you feel refreshed and focused after a short break?
  • Finally, use your own data! Take a look at the information you gathered when organizing your tasks for the day. At what time were you most productive? You should see a pattern here.


iv) Do the 20% first

vital to trival task ratio

source – ryanengelfit.com


Focus on the tasks with the highest payoffs. Tackle your top 20% of tasks first before moving onto the bottom 80%.

Once you’ve identified your most important tasks, ask yourself the following questions to figure out which ones to complete first?

  • If I get this task completed first, will it help the completion OR even eliminate some tasks that follow?
  • Is completing this task necessary for someone else on the team? In other words, for every minute this task isn’t completed, does it prevent someone else on my team from doing their job? An example of this would be: approving a feature the tech team is ready to work on vs. having a meeting with a designer for something due in a month.

v) Set goals that your brain likes

Setting goals is an important part of productivity and motivation. By organizing your daily tasks and reviewing your previous day’s work, you’re breaking a larger daily goal into bite sized chunks. It’s important to set realistic goals that you know 100% you will be able to achieve. This way, anything on top of that is extra and this will motivate you to keep going.

When we knock things off our to-do lists, our brains release dopamine. This neurotransmitter is known as the “feel good hormone” because it does just that – makes us feel good. We can actually manipulate our dopamine levels by setting smaller goals and achieving them. This cultivation of small achievements propels you to greater success. Setting this bar too high is actually counterproductive. Each time we fail, it becomes harder to learn and concentrate because of a drop in our brain’s dopamine levels.

Now that we have reviewed our previous day’s structure and figured out the current day’s desired outcome, let’s move on to getting our blood pumping.


2. Get your blood pumping

morning exercise

source – unsplash.com

We know that exercise is good for you but how does it influence our productivity and focus? It’s pretty simple really, exercise gets our blood moving throughout our whole body. This increase in blood movement means that more oxygen is being delivered to the brain – increasing brain function. Not only that, but research has also shown that the part of your brain critical for learning and memory your hippocampus is highly active during 20 minutes of exercise, increasing our cognitive functioning.

Tips for choosing the right exercise, when building our focus formula:

i) Anything that is good for your heart is good for your brain

heart and brain connection

source – theawkwardyeti.com

Aerobic exercise gets your blood moving throughout your body, meaning more blood gets delivered to your brain. Exercise can actually make your brain grow!- imaging studies show an increase in grey matter in the area responsible for memory. Not only that, but Aerobic exercise was also correlated with improvements in attention, planning, and organization abilities. These findings are important because they suggest that in the long-term, aerobic exercise starve off brain aging and adverse brain related diseases such as Alzheimer’s.


ii) Exercising in the morning

Science is showing more and more evidence on the benefits of exercising in the morning before going to work. Not only does it increase brain activity, keeping you focused for up to 3 hours but it also:

  • Wakes up your mind better than coffee!
    • Harvard health suggests that even a short amount of cardiovascular exercise can wake you up, improve mental processing and boost levels of energy more than your cup of coffee.
  • Helps with impulse control
    • After exercise, endorphins continue to flow which help us prioritize information and block out distractions allowing us to concentrate.
  • Gives you more energy throughout the day
    • Regular exercise boosts your endurance and muscle strength, giving you more energy on a cellular level
  • Enhances mood

Regular exercise releases endorphins and “feel good hormones” such as serotonin. Research has shown that depressed adults who exercise regularly can improve their symptoms of depression as well as Zoloft (aka Sertraline)!


iii) Not a fan of running? Opt for circuit workouts, they’ll quickly spike your heart rate.

Circuit training will get your blood moving and strengthen your muscles at the same time. Some people prefer to opt for any kind of workout that isn’t straight cardio and this is a good alternative. This type of exercise involves moving quickly through 8-10 stations targeting different muscle groups. This is a great type of workout to target your full body in less than 30 minutes.

circuit workout guide

source – infofit.ca


iv) Hitting a wall or feeling mentally exhausted at work? Try rebooting with a few jumping jacks to get the blood moving to your brain.

Any type of movement that gets your blood pumping throughout your body will act as a “brain energizer”. Whenever you may feel like you’re hitting a mental wall at work, try doing a jumping jacks for 30 seconds. The mental fog will be lifted and you will feel like it’s easier to concentrate.

Tip: Try implementing this within your office culture by setting a couple low energy times (late morning or early afternoon) to collectively do pushups or jumping jacks for 2 minutes. This is a great exercise to get the blood moving, improve focus and set an open social culture.

Moving onto the next part of our day…

Wake-up, breakfast, shower, gym –> check email, grab coffee, get to the office


3.  Revamp your email rituals

We all do it, our phones are on us at all times making it all too easy to check our emails as they come in. Many people have a compulsive need to check email morning, noon and night. According to a survey done by AOL, 41% of people check their email first thing in the morning, 60% check email while on vacation and 77% have more than one account. This email addiction extends even further at work! Research has shown that people spend 23% of their day dealing with email – that’s ~2 hours out of your workday! It was also found that people take an average of only 1 min 44 sec to respond to emails with 70% of those individuals responding within 6 seconds! After responding to an email it takes an average of 64 seconds to return to work. When you add that up with the 2 hours, that’s a good chunk of your day being wasted!

A lot of us check our email as it’s coming in — treating them as phone calls. However, checking your email too frequently leads to unproductivity and stress. According to one study, people generally check their email around 77 times per day causing stress and an inability to focus effectively. Switching between tasks is taxing on the mind and limiting this will not only reduce daily stress but also lead to a more productive work day. However, this may be easier said than done, it’s one thing to know how and why our inboxes are driving us insane, it’s another to stop letting it control your day.

email rituals at work

source – static1.squarespace.com

Let’s dive into the reasons why we’re so addicted to email and see if we can use this to help us change it. There is actually a science behind email dependency and why our inboxes cause us anxiety:


i) We like random rewards

According to classic psychological studies, we’re motivated more by random rewards than fixed rewards (getting a reward every 20 minutes). This is one of the reasons emails keep us hooked, every once in awhile we’ll get a stimulating email (from a friend or about an event) among all the urgent requests or bothersome emails (communication from a frustrated client) and these random rewards is what makes it so addicting.

This image does a great job of summarizing research on how email can control the pleasure centres of our brain!

reasons for addition to email

source – headwaycapital.com

How can we fix this?

Schedule a couple daily meetings with your inbox. By doing this, you will stop the addictive feedback loop. It is suggested that you should be checking your email only 3 times per day! Make sure you set aside a block of time (ex. 20 mins) and logout when your time is up. Setting a limit on checking your email will lower daily stress and predicts a greater well being. When is the best time of day to check your email? Remember when you figured out your most effective time slot? Use the lower energy times of day (typically in the late morning or afternoon) to tackle your email, that way you aren’t wasting your most productive times.

Want to organize your email more efficiently? Use an email client such as google inbox as a de-cluttering method.


ii) We rely heavily on nonverbal communication

dependance on non-verbal communication

source – Unsplash.com

We rely heavily on nonverbal communication — reading facial cues, posture, body language, eye contact etc. (See Scientific tactics to boost non-verbal communication and body language). Since communicating online lacks this type of social feedback, things can get complicated and stressful.

This results from what psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to as “negativity bias”. Goleman suggests that if the sender feels positive about an email, the receiver usually feels neutral and if the sender feels neutral about the email then the receiver feels negative. Meaning, every message you send, automatically gets downgraded a few positivity points by the time someone else receives it. This can lead us to feeling anxious about what we send or upset with what we receive.

How can we fix this?

Upgrade your empathy and enthusiasm when writing. In other words, take a step back and envision yourself as the receiver, will they take it as a positive or negative tone? Use positive words and subjective language. Emails that encourage people or state a point of view tend to be most effective. When reading emails, keep this negativity bias in mind and try to see it for what it is.


iii) We’re chasing a moving target

Similar to when we receive positive emails, when we complete a task our brains release dopamine (remember that this is a “feel good chemical”). This surge of dopamine keeps us feeling like we’re completing more than we actually are. The truth is, the email cycle is never complete – when we answer one email, it is generally replaced by 5 others. Thus answering emails causes a false sense of completion which makes us feel good in the moment but actually leads us to feeling stressed out. In fact, it actually causes 92% of employees to show elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

How can we fix this?

Implement more lax email expectations through your company. There is a social expectation that comes with email and as a leader, you can encourage this habit, so people know they’re supported and not judged based on it. However, enforce the notion that you should be dedicated to the task during these three sessions to ensure important emails are being addressed. Companies should try to rethink how we’re using our digital tools in order to increase employee happiness and well-being.


iv) We are ruled by reciprocity

Numerous psychological studies have shown that humans are inclined to the rules of reciprocity. It refers to our need to reciprocate the kind of treatment another has given to us. This is what leads us to respond to emails that don’t require a response such as when a coworker sends out an update regarding a project. Due to this notion, overflowing inboxes lead us to feeling guilty and more obligated to reply even at the cost of other work we may have to get done. In other words, this stress and anxiety is caused by our own thinking.

How can we fix this?

There are some solutions to fighting the urge to completion.

  1. Make your emails harder to get to
    • In line with setting aside a block of time for checking your email, turning off push notifications/bury your email app is another big one. Making an action harder to do will make it less likely to occur. So find ways that make opening your email more difficult. If you don’t see the email coming in, your anxiety will be lessened. If this doesn’t work, turn off email altogether or delete the app from your phone. This will make sure you are sticking to your routine.
  2. Organize your contacts
    • Use two separate email account for personal and work emails
    • Sort your contacts into VIPs, collaborators, potential clients, randoms etc., and adjust your email routine accordingly. This will help you to respond to the most important emails first, lessening stress and anxiety.
    • Do you have 1-2 people you need to respond to right away? On your iphone, Gmail app or android phones you can designate certain people as priority senders and receive a special notification whenever you receive an email from them.
  3. Close conversations at the earliest opportunity
    • If you’re stuck in a long email thread, kindly exit at the earliest convenience to avoid a long string of emails. You can do this by muting the thread when you don’t need to respond, offer an immediate solution with a quick reply and then leave, or say something like: “Hi everyone, you seem to have a handle on this. I’m going to exit for now”. If the emails drag on, suggest a meeting.
    • Again, these situations take up a large amount of time and add to email stress. If you are finding that you’re constantly in long thread emails with the same group of people, try switching over to a chat tool such as slack. This tool presents conversations in an easy to read and searchable format which will help streamline your workflow. Additionally, you know how and when notifications come through.

Want to learn more about this topic? Check out the book Unsubscribe by Jocelyn Glei. We have covered some of her teachings here but this will give you a more in depth look into getting rid of email anxiety, spending more time on meaningful work and reclaiming your focus.


Premium lessons on improving your concentration

If you are interested in building a stronger toolbox to boost your focus & concentration, enjoy our members-only module here. Micro-habits from research to measurably enhance your focus and concentration.



Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned so far in part 1 of “building your own focus formula”. So far we’ve gone through the first part of our day and we’ve given you some new tools to implement throughout.

Part 1

Wake-up, shower and eat breakfast

Hit the Gym

Check email, grab coffee

Get to the office


Part 2

Emails and meetings

Lunch (if you find the time)

Meetings/research/more emails

Reading/relax (is that a thing?)

Before bed: more emails


Let’s go through these again:

  • Through understanding the Pareto principle we learned:
    • importance of breaking down our day.
    • rid ourselves of unnecessary tasks
    • find our most effective time slot.
    • work on the most important 20% first
    • being realistic with our goals keeps us motivated
  • Through exercise we learned:
    • heart healthy workouts leads to better concentration
    • exercising in the morning leads to productivity throughout our day
    • circuit workouts also breed similar brain boosting potential
    • doing jumping jacks can give you a focus boost
  • Checking our emails multiple times per day leads to anxiety and unproductivity because:
    • we’re addicted to the rewarding feeling we get from checking emails. Instead we should limit this to 3 times a day
    • communicating online is complicated due to our need for non-verbal cues.
    • we’re constantly chasing a moving target of overflowing emails
    • Due to reciprocity, we want to respond to emails right away

With these lessons, you have enough to implement changes to half of your day. Read part 2 now, where we will discuss the science and tips behind napping more often, how to become more zen and how being happy ties everything together!