July 1, 2010 -- For most Americans, the lunch hour has become a laughable exaggeration.
According to recent polls, the average worker takes less than 20 minutes away from his or her desk each day for lunch. Many never leave the desk at all and end up wolfing down their meal by the glow of their computer screens.
Tony Schwartz, author of "The Way We're Working Isn't Working," wants to change all that.
Schwartz in a new initiative called "Take Back Your Lunch" is inviting workers the world over to reclaim that elusive mid-day break every Wednesday at noon this summer -- for the sake of their health, their sanity, and their productivity.
"The demand in people's lives overwhelms their capacity. We need to stop operating as if we were computers -- we operate better when we pulse between spending and recovering energy," Schwartz says.
"The most logical time to take a break is in the middle of the day. I think of lunch as the centerpiece for building rhythm back into your life."
The initiative opened last Wednesday with events at Madison Square Park in New York City as well as other outdoor locations across the country. Workers from 85 cities are currently organizing Wednesday meet-ups in an effort to reclaim not only time to eat, but time to recharge, socialize, and better equip themselves for the workload of the afternoon.
Take Back Your Lunch is part of the work done by the Energy Project, a company Schwartz founded in 2003 to address flaws in the modern work schedule that impact not only productivity but happiness.
"Lunch is going the way of breakfast," says David Dinges, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. "It's become part of the rat race."
"Eating, like sleep, is seen as eating up time, and time is more valuable than money in our world. People will trade that eating and sleep time in a heartbeat for time to run one more errand, do more work," he says.
What a Break Can Do for You
What does this diminutive, or non-existent, lunch break mean for workers?
"The brain becomes less efficient the longer it works on the same task," says Dinges. "Especially if it's fairly monotonous work, the more you work on a task without a break, the more likely you are to make mistakes."
And when we go without even a break for meals, our efficiency takes a nosedive.
"Suddenly we've traded away lunch, thinking it was a way to be more productive, but it makes you less -- it's not about the number of hours you work, it's what you get done in the hours you work," says Schwartz.
One study from the University of Wisconsin suggests that skipping lunch could even have economic impact on a nation. In comparing the New York Stock Exchange, which is open throughout the day, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange which shuts down for a lunch break every day, researchers found that taking this mealtime break from trading served to reduce the volatility of the stock market for Japan
Eating at your desk is also bad for your waistline. More often than not, working through lunch means grabbing a bite of fast food, which is "not doing your body any favors," says Dr. Darwin Deen, medical professor at City College of New York.
"We also know that mindless eating is not a good thing, like when you eat in front of the computer or while talking on the phone. People tend to overeat because they are not paying attention to how much they eat."
It's not only our lunch hour that's suffering. The Energy Project conducted a poll of over a thousand people through the Huffington Post and found that many rarely get a true break from the hustle and bustle of their workday, even when they're out of the office.
Out of 1,200 respondents, 60 percent said they spend less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from their email. The email-free time was less than half an hour for one out of five.
"I came to the conclusion that the acceleration of the pace at which we live was taking a kind of invisible toll on us," Schwartz says, concerning his research on worker happiness and productivity.
This is the basis of Schwartz' work and the initiative to take back the lunch hour: time is finite, but energy is a renewable resource. Manage energy well and we can be more productive, in less time, and be happier to boot.
The Elusive Lunch and the Secret of Productivity
People think that by working through lunch, they'll be able to finish their work sooner, but that is usually not the case, Schwartz says.
"People say they don't have time to take a lunch break, but that's a misunderstanding of time. Working through lunch does not give you an extra hour of work because if you work too continuously, you do lower quality work and are less efficient at doing it!" he says.
So what's the solution? Short periods of intense, uninterrupted work time, followed by restorative breaks. And no, checking your personal email doesn't constitute a "break." What you're looking for is an adequate period of rest that restores your mind and body.
Research on productivity and attention provides the following tips on how to make your break a truly restful one:
Chat It Up or Go Solo -- It's important to get a break from the kind of work you do all day long, Schwartz says, so if you work alone, go get some face time with friends or colleagues, a little water cooler chit chat. If your work involves dealing with people all day, go take some solo downtime to recharge your batteries.
Get Some Green -- a study from the University of Michigan found that your brain gets more of break by taking a walk in a green environment, like a park, than if you took a stroll in an urban environment. In the study, those who took a walk in a park performed better at cognitive tasks than their urban peers.
Interval Training for Your Brain -- The mind and body naturally cycles between productivity peaks and lulls, Schwartz says, so play to this rhythm. Try to work intensely, with no interruptions for 90 minutes, and then take a break. Recharge and repeat.