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You Can Quit Feeling Bad About Your Sad Desk Salad

Here’s a new way to think about the benefits (yes, benefits) of eating lunch at your desk, while working, alone.

You Can Quit Feeling Bad About Your Sad Desk Salad
[Photo: Flickr user Marjan Lazarevski]

Jim Azevedo, marketing director of Smashwords, an indie e-book platform, has a trick to staying sane during the work day: he eats his lunch at his desk.

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Jim Azevedo

This may seem like the opposite of good advice. Hasn’t the “sad desk saladbecome the symbol of the modern worker chained to her desk, or a prisoner of his cubicle?

But for Azevedo, his desk salad is a happy one: representing freedom. Because by eating lunch outside of his lunch hour, Azevedo makes sure to take that hour for himself: to pursue a passion like running, mountain biking, or playing the drums (on days when he works from home).

It’s a practice Azevedo first put into effect almost two decades ago, when he worked for a small PR firm called Dovetail PR. The company was on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, in a region with nice bike trails, and Azevedo had a boss named Mark Coker who created a relaxed culture at the office. So Azevedo slowly got into the habit of fishing his mountain bike out from the back of his pickup truck around 12:30, heading out for a bike ride, then slinking back to the office a little before 1:30. (The routine also involved a change into sweats, plus a visit to the bathroom for a quick clean at the sink. “Deodorant’s essential,” he says, adding that he kept an extra stick in his desk.)

“It felt funky at first. It felt like, ‘Am I being a professional?’” he says. But he pushed through that feeling.

Until one day in or around 1997, Azevedo’s commitment was put to the test. As soon as Azevedo hit the trails that day, it started pouring rain. Azevedo kept biking, hoping the rain might let up. It didn’t. By the time he got back to the office, he was covered in mud. “It was a small office, and people were giggling,” he says of the looks he got when he returned to the office.

At that point, Azevedo might have ended his curious lunch ritual. Instead, he doubled down. “I thought, you know what, I got a couple of chuckles here and there–who cares? I’ve got to keep doing this, because it’s who I am. That’s the moment I was like, ‘I’m doing this for good.’”

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If only Azevedo had been able to adhere to his own advice. In reality, the intervening 18 years have seen some periods where his desk salad has been happy, but others when his desk salad has been decidedly sad.

From 2003-2007, Azevedo moved to a small enterprise management software company called ProactiveNet. The culture and workload there wasn’t quite conducive to a mid-day bike ride, but Azevedo found a suitable workaround: the office was 13 miles from his home, so he biked to and from work every day. There were showers on the premises, which helped.

But in 2007, ProactiveNet was acquired by a larger company, and Azevedo began to lose his early dedication to “me time.” “I felt like it was a different culture there,” he says. “I just didn’t feel comfortable going for a run or jog.” Azevedo has moonlighted in a rock and roll band for about 14 years, and it was a hobby he shared with coworkers at Dovetail and ProactiveNet. But suddenly, he didn’t feel comfortable sharing that side of himself. “I was like, ‘Gosh, I don’t want people to know that I play in a rock band. Maybe they’ll feel I’m not a professional.” (Azevedo stresses that the fault may not have lain in the company’s actual culture, but merely Azevedo’s perception of it.)

Ultimately, Azevedo was laid off. He was so exhausted at that point, it came as a relief. Some people counseled that he take time off to relax, but within a few months, he was back at work at another PR firm, this time working harder than before. The job was in San Francisco, a 50-mile drive from where Azevedo lived in San Jose; he commuted for three hours each day. He was up at 5 a.m., home at 10 p.m., then collapsing into bed before and doing it again. He was miserable–and suffice it to say that there was no time in the middle of the day for joy rides around the city. His desk salads were tragic.

One Sunday, a few months into that job, Azevedo had to get up early to finish some work left over from the week before. “I had that feeling in my stomach like, ‘Ugh, why am I working again on weekends?’ I had heard about people who got so stressed they were on the verge of tears at work, and I used to think, ‘How could anyone let that happen to themselves?’ But there I was at my desk at home, almost to the point of tears.”

Yet that very night, Azevedo’s band played a big rock show, opening for The Misfits. It was one of the best shows the band ever played. “By the second song, I felt like we were floating off the stage. The crowd just exploded for us. It was euphoric. I thought: ‘This is what you’re passionate about. Don’t forget who you are.’ I know I had to leave that job.”

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Azevedo quit, but his boss offered a position as a consultant, working from home. Azevedo agreed. On his first day as consultant, he went and visited his mother in Santa Cruz. “She said, ‘Hey, do you want to go for a walk?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’” They spent his lunch hour walking along the beach. “I said, this is perfect. This is exactly how I want my work life to be. I want to work hard, but have the flexibility to go out and have lunch with my mom.”

Eventually, Azevedo found his way back to working for Mark Coker of Dovetail, who now heads Smashwords. Azevedo still works from home, and he frequently takes that lunch hour to spend as he pleases: going for a jog or bike ride, or slipping back to his drums for an hour to practice.

“I’m 46 now,” says Azevedo, “and through my twenties and thirties I just tried to work as hard as I possibly could. I didn’t have anybody telling me, ‘You need balance.’ It’s important for people to find balance, right now. No one’s gonna sit you down and say, ‘Hey, during your lunch break, you need to take a break.’ It’s super important people do it for themselves.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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