How You Can Take a Lunch Break and Get Your Work Done, Too

Working through lunch or skipping it altogether is a reaction to your packed schedule, but it's not a long-term solution.

I just ordered lunch online from the not-horrible chain restaurant across the street. In 10 minutes, I can pick up my bag of food and then head back to the office, where I will most likely keep working while I cram a sandwich down the hatch.

I'm not alone. According to Workfront's latest State of Enterprise Work Report, 57 percent of general office workers take 30 minutes or less for lunch, while 28 percent take 15 minutes or less. A full 87 percent don't even take a real lunch break because they have too much to do or just prefer to work through the chomps.

The thing is, there are some really good reasons to step away from your work for lunch. The break can improve your productivity and boost your creative thinking. Over time, it can help counter the risks of job burnout. The Work Report data reflect this longing for lunch, even as we forsake it - 53 percent of respondents felt sad, angry and other negative emotions about missing lunch, signified in their report by a poop emoji (it literally is used in the report).

Below are four of the common worries, habits, and impulses that keep us deskbound all day, plus ways to ease them so you can enjoy a work-free soup and salad every day.

1. "I have too much to do to stop for lunch."

I get that. Some days I can't imagine stopping for 30 minutes, let alone an hour, just to eat. Given the deadlines, meetings, and emails to get through in a given day, how can you not just keep making headway on the pile of tasks?

Horse hockey. Working through lunch or skipping it altogether is a reaction to your packed schedule; it's not a solution.

TRY THIS: Identify the original time-suckers in your workday that crunch all the other hours. Is it the email flood? Is it the meetings? Is it a ragged morning routine? Now work on solving that problem, rather than reinforcing the habit of working through lunch. (Stay tuned for upcoming Women of the Channel blogs on managing email and reducing unnecessary meetings.)

2. "If I stop now, I'll never get my momentum back."

Some of us have a tough time getting the mental motor running. Maybe you've been hammering away since 9 a.m., and suddenly it's 12:30 p.m. and you've just hit your stride. It feels good — and you're supposed to stop now? That's ridiculous. Better to down a bottle of Soylent or scarf a slice of pizza while you type on.

TRY THIS: Schedule yourself. The only way to counter a sluggish wind-up is to get your day's schedule out of your head and written down in real life, not just online. I mean note what you'll do every half hour, and write it on a little chalkboard each morning next to your computer, with LUNCH included in your best color chalk. Even better, reward yourself every 90 minutes or so with a bottle of seltzer or text to a pal.

You also need to eat smartly if you struggle to get going. Don't bog your brain with tons of cheese or muffins; instead, focus on a balance of carbs, protein and fats. "The optimal power-lunch should include all three — carbs from vegetables and/or whole grains; a protein such as lean meat, eggs, beans or nuts; and a healthy fat like olive oil or avocado," writes The Washington Post.

3. "I can't break because I need to leave work on time."

Working parents, people with pets, folks who have a side-project they're devoted to—we know this pressure. Any chance at a fulfilling non-work life depends on leaving the office at a reasonable hour.

TRY THIS: Schedule smart. Take your lunch break around 11 a.m. when you still have a sense of spaciousness about the day, before the time-scarcity anxiety sets in. Schedule another, shorter break around 3 p.m., when our focus tanks regardless of when we eat (check out Work Report's graph on page 19). A 10-minute walk outside or quick water bottle refill and snack will help keep the bleary end-of-day productive, and get you out the door on time.

4. "I'll impress my boss and co-workers if I'm always at my desk."

Yes, you will look productive. The Washington Post reports that "people unconsciously perceive you as more dedicated and dependable if they see you at your desk more," according to Kimberly Elsbach, professor at University of California at Davis.

But the quantity and quality of your work will not impress. The Post article points to data showing that the most productive workers take regular breaks that lasted about 17 minutes each. Your whole team's work will improve if non-desk lunch is the norm.

TRY THIS: Create an office community around lunch. Elsbach, speaking with NPR, suggests setting up "an online forum where you say, 'OK, these are the different activities we're doing." One group brown bags it outside. Maybe another goes to a nearby diner. Bottom line, everyone gets involved.*

Make it 15 minutes or make it 45. Just step away from the desk and feed yourself lunch every day.

*To make this culture shift work, you'll need to involve top managers. To get buy-in from leadership, you might propose a culture of lunch project and measure productivity or other outcomes before and after.

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