How to take lunch

Recently, I challenged the hosts of the productivity podcast, On the Reg, to take a lunch break four days a week. You can hear it here (from 30:34 to 35:02). My challenge to the hosts Jason Downs and Inger Mewburn was simple:
  1. You have to be away from your desk for an hour.
  2. You can do no work during that hour.

Their response surprised me. While acknowledging the clear mental and physical advantages of taking a break, Inger said, “I just don’t know if I could do that.” Jason said the same, and that he time-shifted some of his lunch break to the end of the day so that he could leave work early. After some thought, he decided that a lunchtime yoga class might be beneficial. That is, he could take lunch if there was a worthwhile activity to fill the void.

I have the zeal of a convert when it comes to taking an hour-long lunch break. I used to work all the hours of the day until I realised that I wasn’t getting work done any faster. I was effectively just giving myself more work. Most of my work is transactional – someone gives me work, I work on it, then I pass it on (often passing it back to them). They work on it, and pass it on (often sending it back to me). If I do an extra hour of work in the day, I’m not getting more work done. I’m just increasing the rate of work. I’m effectively making work arrive back on my desk faster.

What’s worse, I’m giving my employer an hour of my time for free. I love working at a university but I don’t love it that much. I’m not naive. Finally, my inner child said, “That hour’s mine – give it back”.

So, how could you take up this challenge? It’s one of those things that’s extremely simple yet also extremely complex, mostly because our work habits are often well ingrained and structured around other life demands.

Here’s what you do:

Tell people you are taking lunch

First, block an hour out of your calendar and make it a repeating daily event. It’s easy. Go and do that now – I’ll wait.

By doing this, you are giving yourself permission to take a regular break every day. Your first few weeks will be bumpy because there might already be things in your calendar. Don’t try to rearrange them. Just move your lunch to a spare hour, if you have one. You might find yourself taking lunch at 11 am or 3 pm in that first week or two. Stick with it. Over time, it will even out. In my experience, most of your colleagues will respect your choice.

If you want to level up, find the setting that allows other people to see what you are doing in that hour, and make it public. Your workmates can then see that you are taking lunch. If someone really needs you, they can make an informed decision about whether they need to meet with you at that time or whether their meeting can wait until later on.

Take your lunch

I take my lunch to work. Partly this is an economic choice. Buying lunch on campus would cost me about $50 per week. Taking lunch from home costs about $5 – $10 per week, as it is a small portion of last night’s dinner. Partly, it is healthy. The portions that I would buy for lunch would be bigger, with more fat and more sugar in them (that’s why it tastes so good, peeps).

Mostly, though, I like the ritual. My employer provides a great tea room with a refrigerator, microwave, sandwich toaster, plates, cutlery, chopping boards and a dishwasher. At the start of the day, I put my lunch in the fridge. At lunchtime, I take it out and prepare it. At both those times, I bump into colleagues that I wouldn’t normally talk to. We chat. It’s nice.

I’ve seen people prepare some amazing lunches using the limited resources in the lunch room. Amazing salads, decadent toasties, delicious fruit salads. People who start work early make breakfast. It’s a whole new world in there.

Be warned that many tea rooms do not offer all those things. Check what resources you have before you make your plans. You might need to bring your own cutlery, or even your own plate. I carry a lovely little compact cutlery set that was the gift from a previous boss.

Find nice things to do

Blocking out the time is the easy bit. The hard part is actually taking the break. Here is what I do; it might work for you, too.

If there is no convenient lunch room, think about what communal eating areas are nearby. On a university campus, that might be a student area. On an urban campus, it might be a nearby food court. When the weather is nic,e it might be a lovely space outside. Or book a meeting room. It depends a lot on what you want to do – if you want to read a book, the meeting room will be quiet. If you want to chat with a friend, the food court ambience might work better for you.

Like going to the gym, taking lunch is easier if you do it with someone else. I have some regular lunches with friends each month. Most work on campus. One likes to come to campus because he works at home (nearby) and it gets him out of the house.

Other times, there are activities that happen at lunchtime, like Jason’s aspirational yoga class. Our campus has a regular board games group that meets at lunchtime. I don’t get to that as often as I would like but it has been fun when I’ve attended.

Most of the time, though, I try to get off campus. I eat my lunch (which takes about half an hour), and then I walk for fifteen minutes in one direction and then back again. I might listen to a podcast or just spend time in my own head. It gives me a great break from work, and I get some exercise.

Occasionally (like today), I do some work on another project. I’m writing this blogpost during my lunchtime. Other times, I plot out what is going to happen next in my regular roleplaying game. It gives me a break from the work that I’m doing every day.

What counts as work

In the discussion that Jason and Inger had on the podcast, Inger said that she is often nerding out about work with her lunch companions. That seems OK to me. It’s also OK to have lunch with your bitch buddy on whingeing Wednesdays. Some of us do a lot of ‘para-work’ – work that we do because we love it, even though we aren’t paid for it. Like this blogpost.

To my mind, there is a difference between meeting about a current project over lunch and having a good goss about the university in general over lunch. The former is focused and instrumental. It is something that you might report back to a supervisor about. It doesn’t give you a break from work – it is work. The latter is wide ranging and therapeutic. It is social. It does give a break from the things that you are dealing with, day to day. It definitely isn’t something that you would produce a set of minutes for. To my mind, it doesn’t count as work. We have colleagues at work who are friends, and we have colleagues at work who are colleagues. I’m encouraging you to have lunch with your friends.

Our work should not be so busy that we don’t have time to nourish our bodies and minds. You have the legal right to a lunch hour. Take your lunch.