Taking a long lunch seems like a surefire way to get behind in your work, but the practice can actually boost your output when you return, says Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done.
“Many of us feel guilty, like we aren’t doing enough, but the idea that we need to work more hours is based on a model that doesn’t fit us,” he says.
Unlike computers, which can maintain productivity over time, Davis says the human brain works in brief periods of highly effective output, forming creative connections. These spurts carry us through a whole week, but they can’t be delivered on command.
Through neuroscience and psychological research, Davis says scientists have learned how to set up conditions that foster these bursts, and that involves downtime: having space to think, an opportunity for background prophesying, and a break from constant working.
While it’s tempting to work through lunch, it’s actually the perfect time of day to take a break. In fact, if you don’t step away during lunch, you’re hurting your afternoon productivity. Benjamin Franklin was a big fan of the two-hour lunch, and often included this long break in plans he drew up for how to spend his days.
“It’s easy to get sucked into autopilot, especially after we’ve exhausted our mental energy during the morning,” says Davis. “You get going on a task and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later. And it’s often not the stuff that moves your career forward or grows your company.”
Davis says a two-hour lunch gives the brain two things it needs to be more productive during the afternoon; the first is psychological distance. “It’s so much easier to remember the big picture, what matters, and what’s your most important desire when you literally step away,” he says.
Having lunch at your desk while reading email doesn’t offer you the space your brain needs to let your mind wander. “We don’t tend to think of it as important, but creative incubation is when our mind is solving something in the background or planning for the future,” says Davis. “This downtime is valuable.”
The second thing the brain needs is periodic breaks to recover from mental fatigue. “If you’re constantly making decisions, it becomes very hard to do important, thoughtful work,” says Davis. “After a break, however, you get a period of great mental energy. You can have two awesome hours of work.”
What you do on your long lunch break is also important to its success, and Davis offers three suggestions for maximizing your break.
Read. Choose a novel or a book that isn’t work-related. Davis recently read a nonfiction book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge on his lunch break; the things he learned about this subject later proved useful for sparking creative ideas for a neuroscience presentation.
Socialize. Another effective activity is engaging in social time, but don’t talk shop with a coworker, says Davis. “Hang out with friends, joke around, and take the opportunity to shift your emotional space,” he says.
Exercise. Moderate exercise is a third option. While most of us exercise for its long-term benefits, such as physical fitness and better health, Davis says research has shown that short-term gains are directly related to productivity.
“The half hour after you exercise affects your emotions and concentration in a remarkably reliable way,” he says. “Jog for 20 minutes or walk stairs; it reduces anxiety like a reset button.”
When you come back from your two-hour lunch, Davis says you’ve set yourself up to have a fantastic work session: “You’ll be more effective when you come back and you won’t need to work as long,” he says.