When was the last time you took a proper lunch break during the workday? One where you did not hunch over your phone or laptop the whole time, or inhale a slice of greasy pizza between meetings?
I ask because, until recently, I had not taken a lunch break with any regularity for years. And I work for myself! Nobody is breathing down my neck. Yet, there I was, grinding through hectic, overbooked, workdays on a regular basis. And it was totally self-imposed.
I am ambitious. I like to be productive. And yet I began to wonder if pausing for a proper lunch break might somehow help me be even more productive.
So, I conducted a personal experiment to see what would happen if I forced myself to take an hour-long lunch break for 30 days, and log the results.
Spoiler alert: Worth it. I was more productive than ever (in less time), and, as a bonus, I even experienced an unexpected ripple effect on my life outside of work. Here’s what happened:
Deciding what counts as a break
Day 1: The nagging urge to do little administrative tasks (check my email, tweet out my latest blog post) is hard to resist. Instead, I take a walk and focus on getting a few personal tasks done. I go to the post office and the pharmacy. I buy a Mrs. Potato Head doll for my niece’s birthday. These are not riveting tasks, but at least they are not work.
Day 6. I am still struggling with the thought, “You should be working.” I spend most of my lunch fooling around on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but realize that does not feel restorative or fun. I am just bored. Giving myself free time during the workday is such a foreign concept that I do not know what to do with it.
At this point, I have learned that I work best (meaning I am less stressed and more productive) when I have an hour-long break—one that includes a break from my phone, as well. You may need something different. Experiment.
Cannot take an hour (or think you cannot)? Try 30 minutes. Cannot do 30 minutes? Try 15. Literally, just go outside for 15 minutes. Move your legs. Get some sunshine. Take a few deep breaths.
Cannot manage 15 minutes? You have one of two problems (or maybe both): 1. You are working for a sadistic tyrant; 2. You have put yourself very, very low on your list of priorities (making you the sadistic tyrant). In either case, it is just a matter of time until you burn out.
Doing more in less time
Day 11: I take myself out to an all-day breakfast place and go to see some baby goats at an urban farm. Yet I still manage to launch a course and do a press interview. Not too shabby.
Day 18: I work analog all day, with just a notebook and pen, on an ecological reserve. I stroll the trails at lunch. It is a massively productive day, with no distractions.
Oddly enough, I have done more (in less time) during this month that I ever have. I have taken on more clients than ever. I have launched a course. I have sold a book. I chalk this up to the fact that I was not running on empty by mid-afternoon every day. When you are working while exhausted (or starving) there comes a point when you are not even productive anymore. You are just spinning your wheels.
An unexpected ripple effect
Day 19: Business partners of mine say they need a quick turnaround on a deadline. Damn it. I take a deep breath and tell them their turnaround will need to wait until Monday. I would love to pretend I have mastered my priorities, but really I just do not want to fail this experiment before the month is over.
Day 20: I am beginning to notice that I have more in the tank at the end of the day. I make golden curried lentil soup for dinner. I have actually cooked several days this week (and I never cook).
Not only have I been more productive this month, but taking a lunch break has been a catalyst for other healthy self-care behaviors. I did not expect this.
I have made (mostly) better food choices because I did not feel the need to grab the easiest, quickest thing to scarf down while working. I also did not wait until I was ravenous to eat lunch (in which case I want to eat everything).
I have also had more left in the tank in the evenings, so I have cooked more homemade meals (this is big for me) and have gone to yoga class more. Why? I have not been dog-tired by the end of the day. I have been up for more than just Netflix.
Failure to lunch
Day 21: Epic fail. I've overbooked myself with too many meetings. I ate a greasy breakfast sandwich at 10 a.m. and chicken lo mein at 3. I'm super stressed. I've noticed I’m not even breathing properly, as though I’m holding my breath.
Day 22: I take a lunch break, but “lunch” consists of a giant brownie and some orange juice. Poor choice. Garbage food. Too much sugar. No protein. Crash.
Day 26: I take a mental break, but it mostly consists of sitting. I'm bored and restless after not moving enough for too many consecutive days.
I realize that I have felt the best and been the most productive on days when I have gone for a walk (even a short one) during my lunch break.
I have realized the same positive results when I have eaten a proper lunch (in non-brownie form). Big surprise.
Clearly I am no expert at this yet, but I am noticing what works (and what does not) and adjusting accordingly. I am getting there.
But I cannot take a lunch! For very legitimate reasons! That is what you are telling yourself, right? Things like:
I have too much to do.
If I stop to take a lunch, I will never go home because I will have to work later.
Everyone else works through lunch. I do not want to look like a slacker.
I might lose my focus if I stop working and take a break.
Related: How to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle While Chowing Down at Lunch Meetings
I hear ya, pal. But if you can wrap your head around the idea that momentarily stepping away from your work might actually make you more productive, maybe you will be willing to give it a shot. Treat it like an experiment, as I did, and see what you learn.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.
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