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Make Your Desk Lunch Less Sad in Four Steps

A few tweaks can turn your mid-day food break into a workplace productivity (and happiness) booster.

To those faced with an endless onslaught of meetings and deadlines, the idea of an actual lunch break may seem positively passé. But while gobbling whatever’s handy while sitting at your desk may seem like a ticket to a more productive day, a well-planned lunch has the opportunity to make you feel better, smarter, and more productive (not to mention being delicious and potentially fun). Here are four ways you can take back your mid-day meal.

Let your mind wander

There’s a reason we often have our best ideas in the shower, while cruising down the highway, or taking a few moments off to focus on food. Credit it to what Kimberly Elsbach, professor of management at the University of California-Davis Graduate School of Management, calls “ruminative downtime.” That is, those moments where your brain is allowed to wander and make seemingly out-of-nowhere connections.

“Lunch is a great time for you to do this,” Elsbach said. “Being away from your workspace to have lunch with friends or go for a walk gets your cognitive juices flowing but doesn’t overtax you. That’s a real opportunity for creative thought.”

Elsbach also points out that some studies have shown that getting outside and into natural settings (or even just sitting on a patio) can be conducive to ruminative thought and the overall creative process.

Eat more plants

You probably already know you should stock your diet with more greens, but new research has drawn concrete connections between fruit and vegetable consumption and overall well-being.

In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand tracked what young adults ate over a couple of weeks, as well as their overall mood. The subjects' daily happiness, they found, was closely related to how many servings of fruits and vegetables they ate.

“Fruit and vegetable consumption also predicted states of eudaemonic well-being—feelings of purpose and meaning, engagement in daily activities, curiosity for their environment, and feelings of creativity for that day,” said Kate Brookie, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Otago and co-author of the study. “This is important because it suggests that what we eat has a broad impact on our well-being, but also that daily fruit and vegetable consumption may be an easy route to improve our daily experiences.”

And while these results may seem obvious (who hasn’t been told to eat more vegetables?), the exact mechanism for this link is still unclear. Brookie speculated that it could be related to an abundance of plant-based vitamins and minerals that are vital for the neurotransmission systems that keep our bodies and brains running smoothly. 

Head to a crowded café when you're stuck on a problem

Numerous studies suggest that the background chatter of a cafe or coffee shop can spur the creative and problem-solving process.

“Moderate levels of ambient or environmental noise, such as experienced at roadside restaurants or a busy café during lunch times, can distract a person from focal thoughts or a problem one is trying to solve,” said Ravi Mehta, Ph.D., an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois College of Business. “Such distraction, our research shows, makes people assess the problem from a broader perspective that, in fact, results in more creative solutions.”

While this is certainly great news for freelancers looking for places to plop their laptops, office denizens who are looking to solve a tough-to-crack problem can consider using their lunch break to take advantage of this effect.

Stop working while you eat

A wide body of research suggests that regular breaks help you work smarter and feel better. Lunch is no different—except that for many workers, it is one of the few socially acceptable times to step away from their desk long enough to recharge.

“We know that when we work continuously without taking intentional breaks, there is a distinct point of diminishing returns,” said Annie Perrin, executive vice president of faculty and content at the Energy Project, an organizational and performance consultancy. “With each passing hour, the quantity and quality of our energy deteriorates. When we break regularly, we maintain a higher quantity and quality over the course of the day.”

Perrin suggested that managers can help their employees make the most of this break by adding what she calls renewal rooms, which contain beds and lounge chairs for napping, light exercise equipment, and yoga mats.

“We also work with clients such as Google and Facebook, who provide incredibly healthy, free food to their employees in beautiful environments to promote workers getting up and away from their working spaces for lunch—and to aid in the sorts of social interactions that lead to a cross-pollination of ideas during this period,” Perrin said.

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