Lifehack Your Lunch: 8 Scientifically Proven Ways to Maximize Your Mid-Day Break

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5169342665_3da84e78f7I’ve noticed that the way I spend my lunch break affects how productive I am for the rest of the day: how quickly I get started once I get back to my desk, how effective I am in the first hour after lunch, and how I feel throughout the afternoon.

Luckily, we’ve been writing about ways to improve your day for a while now: from tips on making your environment more conducive to creativity to pushing through writer’s block.

Why shouldn’t the humble lunch break get the same treatment? I gathered the most interesting research on how we can improve our afternoon productivity by making careful use of that oh-so-important lunch hour. Here are 8 ways to maximize your lunch break, proven by science.

1. Eat! (The right foods for better brain function)

OK, this one might seem obvious. But even if you’re trying to lose weight or run errands on your lunch break, don’t skip on eating a midday meal – or at least a snack. Your nutrition – particularly your glucose intake – will decide your productivity for the rest of the day.

Here is a great list of brain-powering foods to focus on:


(Want to eat healthier? Just eat one piece of fruit, and you’ll often find yourself inspired to make a healthy salad as well.)

2. Take a real break for greater concentration

Of all the ways to use your lunch break to set yourself up for a great afternoon, the most important might be, well, actually taking a break.

In many industries, lunch breaks are getting shorter and shorter – or even nonexistent. These days, only one in five office workers reports taking an actual lunch break away from their desk, according to a survey by workplace consulting group Right Management.

Yet taking a break – even for 15 to 20 minutes – is a proven way to sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day.

All the little tasks and decision we have to make every day as we work gradually deplete our psychological resources.

Taking a lunch break – or even multiple short breaks throughout the day – provide an opportunity for our brains to recuperate.

“Never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace. It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested. If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.”

3. Get a dose of mindfulness: Do nothing but eat

We’ve talked before on the blog about the power of meditation, but you don’t need a long time or a mat to get started – even sitting quietly and focusing on your lunch can be a small act of mindfulness.

Here’s how one of Buffer’s resident meditators, COO Leo Widrich, puts it:

“It seems such a fitting experience to watch TV, work, read or do anything else but solely focusing on eating when we eat. Funnily enough, it almost appears to be a waste of time if we ‘just eat.’ But the latest research on multitasking reveals the exact opposite. Solely focusing on eating doesn’t just help you digest your food better, it also makes you a more efficient worker for any other tasks.”

Even a few minutes of mindfulness can make a difference.

A study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that assigning call-center workers 20-minute “progressive relaxation” breaks, in which they participated in meditation-like activities, reduced their stress in the afternoon, compared to another group of workers who engaged in small talk with co-workers for 20 minutes. The relaxation technique had a positive impact on blood pressure, sleep quality and more.

4. Take a nap to improve your memory

If you’ve been following the Buffer blog for a while, you’re probably sick of hearing me tout the benefits of napping. Here I go again, though, including napping in this post for an important reason: we’re naturally designed to have a second short sleep in the afternoon.

Our internal body clocks help us to regulate processes like sleeping into a regular cycle. The body clock is a group of cells called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus, which are made up of specific “body clock” genes. These turn on and off to tell our body when to do certain things, like getting sleepy.

scn

All of this is going on inside us all the time, but the important thing to know about our body clocks is that we have a natural dip in energy in the afternoon: right around 2pm. This means if you’re having a late lunch break, that’s a perfect time to grab a quick nap.

Post-nap, (assuming you sleep for a maximum of around 20 minutes, so you avoid that dreaded post-sleep grogginess called sleep inertia), you’ll have more room in your working memory for new information, since sleeping helps to clear out that holding area of any information picked up during the day. While a lot of it gets tossed out, anything important gets moved to long-term memory, so your memory performance should also improve after a nap.

5. Work out — the afternoon is the best time for exercise

Another thing determined by our body clocks is the best time to work out. You’ll want a late lunch break to fit this one in as well: physical performance is generally highest, and the risk of injury lowest, from 3-6pm. Plus, from 2-6pm, muscle strength is at its peak, and even your lungs perform better in the late afternoon than at midday.

Even a couple of hours after midday your performance will be better than in the morning. For runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes, the morning is the worst performance time all day, so going for a run at lunch is a better option than an early morning jog.

Of course, exercise has lots of benefits, including reducing stress, improving mood and increasing confidence and self-esteem. And another study showed that exercising can make you feel better about your body, even when you don’t see any physical changes.

If finding time for a workout during your lunch break seems impossible, give the scientific seven-minute workout a try. It really does take just seven minutes, but it’s high-intensity so you’ll still feel it.

6. Spend time in nature to refresh your attention span

To come back refreshed after a lunch break, spend some time in nature.

sandwich on grass

Studies have shown that a walk in a quiet park is sufficient to refresh our attention spans so we can return to work with renewed focus. (A walk down a city street, on the other hand, was found to require so much attention to complete that it didn’t let the brain relax fully.)

If you’re lucky enough to work close to green, natural spaces, you may notice long-term effects, as well. Research has found that people living in greener urban areas display fewer signs of depression or anxiety, and the low stress levels lasted over a sustained period.

7. Move to a café after lunch for improved creativity

There are a couple of reasons working from a café could be a good change for your afternoon work period. Firstly, the ambient sound of a café has been shown to be the most beneficial sound level for creativity. Moderate noise levels, unlike silence or a noisy environment, increase processing difficulty just enough to push us out of our comfort zones and into more creative thinking.

In fact, there are a few tools to bring that ambient café sound to your headphones, wherever you are:

The second benefit of working from a café after lunch is the change of location to renew your focus. I recently wrote about a process called “Workstation Popcorn.” The idea is to plan your workday in blocks, spending each block of time at a new café or workspace. The new location can help you to knuckle down on your to do list more quickly than if you’re distracted by the tedium of the same old workspace all day.

8. Post to social media

One last thing that the lunch break is perfect for? Social media. Studies on the best times to post on social media often show a spike in click-through rate around lunchtime on weekdays as office workers click around to find something to occupy them while they eat.

For example, this study from KISSMetrics shows the best times to tweet as around noon and 6pm.

Similarly, noon–2 p.m. sees a spike in popularity in news and magazine email updates, according to some research done by Dan Zarrella from Hubspot. A dead zone follows from 2–3 p.m. as lots of workers buckle down and ignore their inbox.

(How are you supposed to tweet while you meditate, nap or take a walk, you ask? That’s pretty much why we created Buffer!)

How do you make the most of your lunch break? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this post you might also like You’ve Got 25,000 Mornings as An Adult: 8 Ways to Improve Your Morning Routine and The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It.

Image credits: Photo Credit: A.Currell via Compfight cc
, MindFlash, Suzanne Morgan Yoga, Little Speak Easy, blackcealt, Heading Fresh, Quantum Gamer

  • Karthikeyan

    Good List :)

  • http://www.hijos-del-atomo.com/ Christian Orellana

    I knew there was a reason why I am more productive at the coffee house. I mean, other than the coffee.

    • Shawn Carter

      I’ve noticed that too. But only in the afternoons. Mornings tend to have me way too distracted if I’m out at a coffee shop.

  • http://actionplanr.com/ Brenda Horton

    Great tips. Especially love the one on eating. So true. I stopped multi-tasking while eating and what a huge a difference it has made in my digestion. This is actually an ancient practice from Aryuveda. It works.

  • Samantha Owens

    Maybe it would defeat the purpose, but if I could work from my favorite coffee shop every day for just an hour or two, I feel like I’d get so much more done. I knew I liked eating sushi for lunch, too – it usually has salmon and avocado on it! :) Now I want a fish sandwich for lunch.

    • Belle

      Short bursts of productivity can be good. Maybe you should try it :)

      • Samantha Owens

        I can’t really leave the office during the day to work, so I downloaded the coffitivity app. I can’t wait to try it! :)

  • RivkaK

    It would be interesting to see if there is an ideal order to do these things. Nap first for 20 minutes, then exercise for 20 minutes, then mindful lunch? Or would it be better to nap last? Might make for a fun Buffer office staff experiment. :-)

    • Courtney Seiter

      Great (and fun) idea!

    • http://tomgibson.eu/ Tom Gibson

      I find there’s nothing better than a nap after meditating, but I don’t fancy my chances trying to get any exercise done afterwards!

  • ajlovesya

    One other small, yet important tip that I’ve learned the hard way: Don’t eat too much during lunch! Once the food coma sets in, it takes a mighty dose of caffeine (vicious cycle!) to get you back on track :)

    • Belle

      I’m with you on that one—I always regret a huge lunch when I get back to my desk!

  • http://missionallendale.wordpress.com/ Joey Espinosa

    As soon as I got to #1, I wanted a snack.

  • Kizumma

    This must be the reason why I always meet other teachers in a Second Cup or Starbucks! Who’d have thought?

  • http://www.propertyinvestr.com Roy @ PropertyInvestr

    I like the look of completely black/blank brain if I sit eating and staring into space for a while. No wonder cows look so relaxed!

  • Mohammad Dorgham

    How I will do all of that in the one hour break time :D

  • http://about.me/muruganpandian Murugan Pandian

    If possible, I always like to take my lunch outside of the
    office to give my mind an opportunity to let all the work thoughts disappear
    leaving it to be able to process new thoughts with clarity.

  • http://newinternetorder.com Azalea Pena

    Belle, this is a very interesting post, learned quite a few new things too. For one, there’s actually a reason why people like working in a cafe. Just thought people wanted to look cool and hang out there. So… I’m giving it a try (yay!) And maybe, I’ll give my lunch more focus this time around. I’ve been focusing on what to do after eating that I’m starting to lose the enjoyment of just eating! Thank you!

  • http://www.velocitydigital.co.uk/blog-social Mike McGrail

    Agree 100% on the walking and moving to a cafe for the afternoon. A change of scene always gives me a productivity and creativity boost!

  • The One You Feed

    Belle Beth….this is nicely done. I just need a 7 hour lunch break. Seriously though doing any of these is a help and I tend to mix it up.

  • Michael Keshen

    Some great tips here! Some of them, unfortunately, are a little less practical than others. I work in an office all day and so taking a nap or moving to a coffee shop in the afternoon isn’t really doable for me.

  • http://www.DrMarcTinsley.com/ Dr. Marc Tinsley

    Good tips. When I speak and consult with businesses, one of the things that I recommend to increase vitality and improve productivity is taking an effective break using strategies that include some of the same ones in the article. And that break should meet their nutritional, physical,
    social, cognitive, spiritual, and emotional needs as much as possible.

  • Mansour Oran

    thanks a lot Belle !

  • Ansley Vasconcellos

    Absolutely love all of these! Aside from being a chocoholic, I’ve always loved bringing nuts + chocolate + fruit with me to work or on trips. It gives me a boost of energy that lasts a long time and doesn’t make me jittery like coffee. I haven’t tried working at a cafe yet, but I might have to. A change of scenery sounds refreshing!

  • Allie

    Humor-laced talks between co-workers while taking meals can relieve people of work related stress and make them fresh and energetic.