Research has shown our brains need a break from work, and we don’t need research to tell us that we get hungry during the workday. But some people are not taking a dedicated break for lunch, and that could be a productivity killer.
“Everyone needs a break and a little exercise in the afternoon to re-energise,” said Bob Pozen, author of the book Extreme Productivity. “So walking to lunch can help you re-energise.”
You’ll be more productive overall by taking time away from your desk and ideally away from answering work email from your phone, according to the research of Kim Elsbach, a professor of organisational behaviour at the University of California at Davis. Her research is not lunch-specific but related to taking breaks.
“Eating at your desk often undermines the benefits of taking a break,” Elsbach said. “You’re still at your desk, so you still have all those cues that make you get back into work mode.”
About 20 years ago Elsbach struggled to come up with creative ideas when she was at her desk. Now, Elsbach said, she insists on making her own copies and sorting her mail even though others in her office can handle those tasks for her. “If I didn’t take those breaks, I might not have another idea in my life,” she said.
The break “allows the mind to wander, and it allows those connections to get made that don’t get made in effortful thinking,” she said. “It’s not just taking a break and doing nothing. It’s taking a break and going for a walk, or taking a break and having lunch and talking to a friend, not about work.”
Taking a break for lunch does not necessarily mean leaving for 60 to 90 minutes and going to a restaurant. It can mean bringing food from home and relocating to a place you don’t associate with work. She recommends the break include time outside or in a nature-like setting.
“Twenty or 30 minutes is all it takes,” Elsbach said. “Take your lunch out to the lobby of your building, watch the world go by, and take a quick walk around before you go back.”
What we do during lunch, even a lunch away from our desk, matters. Scrolling through social media on our smartphones isn’t always advisable.
“If you’re looking at work email, and responding to work questions, then it’s not OK,” Elsbach said. “Getting rid of the technology is better, because you get more engaged in what’s around you. That’s when the creative juices really flow. … People who do cognitively demanding work need to take breaks to rejuvenate their state of mind.”
—Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.