What Maya Angelou’s Daily Routine Can Teach Entrepreneurs About the Importance of Truly Recharging

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Maya Angelou had a routine. Every day, the celebrated author would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and have coffee. Then, it was straight to her makeshift office: a bare bones hotel room with a dictionary, a bible and a bottle of sherry. As she once told an interviewer: “I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well.” When she finished, she’d go home, read over what she wrote and then totally put it out of mind. 

Judging by Angelou’s accolades — more than 30 bestselling titles, more than 30 honorary degrees and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor — the routine worked well for her. 

One of the remarkable features of such a prolific career is the generous allotment of time for recharging. Plenty of rest enabled Angelou to focus when she was writing. And focus is critical for creative work: Research shows that when we lose focus, we’re less motivated, we make more mistakes and we get distracted more easily.

As CEO of my company JotForm, I make recharging a pinnacle of my workday, and I encourage our employees to follow suit. But one size doesn’t fit all. What works for me or what works for Angelou might not fit your style. Here and four things to keep in mind when figuring out your rest routine.

1. Pencil it in

Neuroscience has shown that writing down your goals will increase your likelihood of accomplishing them. Not only does a written goal serve as a visual reminder, but the act of writing itself also affects how that information is encoded in our brains, boosting the chance of you getting it done. 

The same goes for committing our breaks to paper (or your digital calendar) — it will increase the likelihood that you actually take them. That’s why Kalina Michalska, a developmental neuroscientist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside, recommends penciling in breaks first when you’re planning out your day. As she tells the Washington Post, “Put in the run, the lunch, the break. Otherwise, you’re never going to do it.”

Treat your rest time as you would any important meeting — attendance is mandatory.

2. Consider microbreaks

There are days when we just can’t get away from our desks; when even a walk outside feels out of reach. When you’re crunched for time, don’t estimate the power of a microbreak. 

Consider a 2013 study that tested surgeons’ ability to create a star with scissors. The doctors who took microbreaks performed the task an astounding seven times better than their counterparts who hadn’t. In another study, taking just a few moments to watch a funny video clip left people feeling invigorated, more attentive, and with lower fatigue and shorter response delays, as reported by the BBC — so think twice before you delete those hilarious viral videos that your friend shares via group text. 

A brief period of time to disconnect from work, from 30 seconds to a few minutes, can be invaluable — even if you’re not performing surgery. 

3. Give employees control

Another imperative aspect of an effective break is the ability to choose when to take it. There’s nothing worse than being interrupted when you’re in the state of flow — when ideas are streaming so much so that you forget to check the time. To protect your team’s work-flow autonomy, give yourself and your team members control of when to take a breather. And if your flow state cuts into your pre-scheduled break time (per tip number one), don’t fret — just make a quick adjustment to your schedule without sacrificing your hard-earned rest. 

Giving employees autonomy is especially important as employees transition back to in-office work, anxiety looms large and burnout is an imminent threat.

“Putting more control in the worker’s hands is another key step to easing anxiety over returning to workplaces and public life in general — which are common and growing concerns,” says Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral health at Doctor On Demand, to CNBC.  

So allow employees to take the reigns with their schedules. And while group breaks can be helpful — anything from coffee breaks to team karaoke sessions — leaving them as optional might alleviate some of the pressure employees are facing with juggling a host of new responsibilities. 

4. Embrace digital breaks

There’s a common misconception that you have to go fully analog to refresh. In fact, researchers coined the term “screen guilt” to capture that nagging guilt we feel from too much digital connection.

Although tech-free breaks are probably ideal for knowledge workers, who tend to spend their workdays staring at screens, digital breaks shouldn’t be entirely discounted either. Because sometimes, especially if we’re working from home, getting online might be the only way (or the most convenient way) to connect with colleagues and temporarily change the channel in our brains. 

According to Harvard Business Review, a break can be refreshing and digital as long as it satisfies one or more of the following: 1) it gets your body moving; 2) it connects you with other humans; or 3) it challenges your brain with something different. 

So what are some examples of tech-based breaks?

You can do a virtual workout or join an audio-only social network chat (for example, Clubhouse). Play a game of online chess or have a video call with a friend (but try not to talk about work). 

As long as a break helps you to connect with others, to sweat or to use a new part of your brain, it can be digital or analog — the choice is yours.