How do you spend your lunch break? Do you quickly chow down a sandwich at a nearby deli with your eyes glued to your Blackberry? Do you devour a salad at your desk with one hand on your keyboard? Perhaps you skip lunch altogether because you have “too much on your plate.”
“A common complaint I hear is about lunch time getting squeezed down to ten minutes, or to nothing at all, with people eating on the fly or eating while hunched over their computers,” says Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, author and president of Humor at Work.
Why does this happen? Because America has become such a work-obsessed society that we tend to shun the notion of taking a break, explains Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD, organizational psychologist and author of The YOU Plan. “Just like professional athletes, we all need the energy from calories for our minds to function at their best. And we all need a little time to recharge, too.”
In Pictures: 16 Things You Should Do During Your Lunch Break
Last month I laid out the 16 things you should do at the start of every work day and the 16 things you should do at the end of every work day. I concluded that how you spend the first few and last few hours in the office can have a significant effect on your level of productivity. As it turns out, what you do during your lunch hour can be just as important, and that time shouldn’t be overlooked. Taking a midday break during which you refuel and re-energize can not only make you a better employee, but also a healthier and happier person.
“You should be as strategic about your lunch hour as you are about your day in general,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.
With the help of career and workplace experts Michael Kerr, Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, Lynn Taylor, Anita Attridge, Alexandra Levit and David Shindler, I compiled a list of 16 things all workers should do during their lunch break.
“It’s critical to make the most of lunch and remind yourself that by taking a proper break you will accomplish more in the long run, and that productivity and creativity will increase, while your levels of stress and fatigue will diminish,” Kerr says.
Anita Attridge, a career and executive coach with the Five O’Clock Club, a career coaching organization, adds that taking time to disconnect from your work provides renewed energy, and, as a result, makes the rest of the day go more smoothly. “Typically, the afternoon can bring some lulls that can be offset by having been away from your desk. Talking with people about something besides work during lunchtime can also boost your energy level and improve your mood.”
Alexandra Levit, the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, agrees. A lunch break not only fuels your motivation to power toward the end of the day, it also gives you something to look forward to in the morning. “Most people accomplish work best in short bursts with breaks in between, so organizing your schedule around these natural energy peaks will help you be more productive.”
What you do during your midday break might vary depending on your job, company culture or personal priorities—but the experts agree all workers should try to do these 16 things during lunch hour:
Make a plan. “Don’t squander your lunch break because it’s ‘free time,’” Taylor says. Time is a non-renewable resource, wherever you are, whatever the time of day. Try your best to plan it out and make the most of it.
You should also plan your activities immediately after lunch, Kerr suggests. “Giving thought to how you prioritize and schedule events in the afternoon can maximize your productivity. For example, scheduling a meeting or conference call right after lunch may end up causing you stress over the lunch hour or you may end up squeezing the lunch break in order to get back in time and be ready for the meeting.”
Take a real break. Breaking from work for 60 seconds to chow down your lunch at your desk doesn’t count. “In order to get a period of true respite, the time has to involve an actual break from work,” Levit says. Try not to check your e-mail, bring work with you or talk about work during lunch.
Decompress. The first thing you should do when your lunch break begins is take a deep breath and relax, Taylor suggests. “You’ve likely been on over-drive all morning, putting out fires. Before you decide how to spend that golden hour, take a couple minutes to clear your head. Take your break-neck pace to a halt; don’t automatically jump to the next ‘to do’ item. When you’re relaxed, you can better strategize your goals with a broader and wiser perspective.”
Get up from your desk or work space. “Staying at your desk is a big no-no in my book,” Kerr says. “There are more and more reports on the dangers of sitting too long, so even just getting up to walk to another room to eat is important, or better still, getting outside for some fresh air and a quick walk can do wonders for the body and spirit.”
Even if you don’t sit at a desk, you should get away from your work space during lunch, as it will help you clear your mind.
Eat. Don’t try to be a hero and starve yourself for the sake of being a hard worker or checking off another “to-do” item, Taylor says. “You’ll pay for it later when you can’t concentrate and throw your body off balance. If you’ve earned a headache or are lightheaded at 4 p.m., you haven’t ultimately gained anything.”
Enjoy your food. Lunch should be about having lunch, Woodward says. “Treat yourself to something you enjoy that fits with your diet,” he adds. “If you have a favorite place or a particular food you enjoy make sure to go and enjoy it at least once a week. You only live once.”
It’s OK to splurge from time to time—but try to stick to healthy meals as often as possible.
Do what you can’t do in the morning or evening. Some errands—like going to the Post Office or the bank—must be handled during work hours. “Be strategic and use your lunch break to accomplish some of those personal errands that can’t be handled before or after work, or on the weekends,” Taylor says.
But be careful that you don’t cram too many personal errands into your lunch break, Kerr warns. “You’d just end up swapping one stress for another kind of stress without getting the re-energizing benefits a good break can offer.”
Use the time to connect with someone new. “I used to work in an office of 3,000 people, so it was pretty much the norm to not recognize most everyone in the elevator,” Woodward says. “Our workplace interactions can be so fleeting that we really never actually get to know the people we spend most of our days with. When you don’t really know those you interact with it’s easy to dehumanize them and take them for granted. Take some time to get out of the office, grab a sit down lunch, and get to know your co-workers.”
Catch up with old friends. If you have a friend who works nearby, try to meet him or her during lunch occasionally. “Remember, your personal life needs tending to just as much as your work-life, so be sure to take the spare time you have and use it to fulfill your personal needs,” Woodward says. Your midday break is a good opportunity to catch up and socialize, in person or by phone—but don’t lose track of time, and don’t treat it like happy hour.
Have a system for dealing with your absence. This will allow people inside and outside the company to know when you will be back, how to contact you in an emergency or have an alternative point of contact, says David Shindler, founder of The Employability Hub and author of Learning to Leap. It may also help you relax and avoid obsessively checking your e-mail during lunch.
Engage in activities that will help you re-energize. Take a walk outside, visit the gym or meditate. Get out and do something that will make you feel better about yourself. “A quick dose of sunlight and fresh air is the perfect elixir for the midday blues,” Woodward says.
Network. Even if you’re perfectly happy in your job, and you’re not looking for a new one, it can’t hurt to continuously build and maintain your professional network. “This is critical to success in any line of work,” Woodward says. “However, finding the time to connect with those in your network can be tough.”
Attridge adds, “Strategically, lunch is an excellent time to continue to build relationships and network with others whether that is by having lunch with them or calling them to catch up.”
Don’t get stuck in a routine. Many of us are creatures of habit. Maybe you go to the same pizzeria everyday or eat with the same colleague. You might always use your lunch break to run errands or make personal calls. Try to mix things up in order to clear your head and boost your energy.
Avoid all screens. Try to stay away from your iPhone, iPad, Blackberry and computer. “Give your eyes a break,” Taylor says. Most office jobs require you to stare at a screen all day—so try to avoid that during lunch.
If you can’t help it for whatever reason (maybe you want to shop online or e-mail a friend), get up from your desk so your body perceives this as a true break, Levit adds.
Regroup. Treat lunch as sports teams treat half time: take a few minutes to reassess where you’re at and re-prioritize the rest of your day depending on how the morning has unfolded, Kerr suggests.
Don’t take too long or too short of a break. If you’re allotted an hour for lunch, take it. Maybe not every day, but when you can, use the full sixty minutes to get out, eat, exercise your mind or body, catch up with an old friend or a colleague and/or tackle items on your personal agenda.
However, if everyone else in the office takes shorter breaks, follow suit so you don’t stand out.
“Don’t take breaks that are too long or too frequent, as people will start to notice,” Levit says. “And don’t pressure colleagues to adhere to your break schedule. You are primarily there to work–not socialize–so let them do what works best for them.”
“You have the ability to make your lunch hour an invigorating boost to your afternoon by doing what you enjoy; be it a brisk walk listening to music, talking with a close friend, being in nature, even if briefly, or spending time on your favorite project or pastime,” Taylor concludes. “It’s your time to refresh.”
In Pictures: 16 Things You Should Do During Your Lunch Break
This is an update of a piece that ran previously.