Your Definitive Guide To The Most Productive Lunch Hour Ever

Working nonstop doesn’t help you get more done. To be more productive, you need time to recharge. Here are the best ways to spend that time.

Your Definitive Guide To The Most Productive Lunch Hour Ever
[Photo: Flickr user Jim Pennucci]

Most of us know that being chained to your desk all day can take a serious toll on your happiness, productivity, and other mental faculties you need in order to do your job in the first place. And while we also know we should take more breaks during the day, most of us feel like we’re too busy to do so. But taking some downtime is one of the best ways to recharge and refocus. We’re actually more productive if we work less.


So take your hands off the keyboard and swivel away from your cubicle. While you’re at it, leave your phone there, too. You won’t be needing it for the much more refreshing, scientifically vetted lunch break you’re about to take.

Indulge In A Daydream

Ever had one of those days that seems to throw everything at you all before lunchtime? The commute is punishing, there’s a crisis waiting at your desk when you show up, and your boss needs you to put off your other work so you can pitch in. By the time noon rolls around, it’s more than just your stomach that needs refueling.

But instead of a high-octane desk lunch, you might want to zone out for a bit instead. Psychologists have uncovered connections between mind-wandering and our capacities for problem-solving and creativity. Reviewing the results of one recent study, researcher Josh Davis says, “If you want to solve a particularly difficult problem, letting your mind wander by engaging in an unrelated and cognitively easy task can help you find some creative solutions to that problem.”

So step away from that festering inbox and stare out the window for a while. After some unfocused break time, refocusing should be a good deal easier.

Read more: The Hidden Benefits Of Daydreaming

Take A Power Nap

If it’s good enough for kindergarteners, it’s good enough for you. Scientifically speaking, it’s a pity most grownups have forgotten what their children and grandparents seem to remember. The energy levels that affect our productivity fluctuate over the course of the day, as any caffeine addict will be happy to confirm. But a steaming espresso might not be the only way to help you over that midday hump.


Sleep expert Natalie Dautovich says that taking a nap can boost your mood and performance, even though it’s no substitute for a good night’s rest. The sweet spot? 1 to 3 p.m. Not all naps are created equal, though. It turns out that either a quick 20-minute snooze or a 60- to 90-minute siesta are your two best options, but don’t try for something in between.

Put your head down on your desk or book a conference room, and set your alarm according to what you’re trying to accomplish. “The brief nap will sharpen your attention and motor skills,” Dautovich says, “and you’ll wake up refreshed, [whereas] a longer nap helps with problem solving; you’ll feel more creative upon awakening.”

Read more: Why You Should Be Taking A Nap Right Now

Go Sweat It Out

Everybody knows the spiel about endorphins and exercise: Get your body moving, and those happiness-inducing chemicals start to flow inside your skull. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story.

Endorphins are just one element of the anti-stress responses when we start to exercise–and they produce more than just immediate results. Another key byproduct of exercise is BDNF, or “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” a protein that helps protect and repair parts of our mental infrastructure, including neurons involved in memory.

What’s more, these benefits kick in after just 20 minutes of exercise–which leaves you enough time to run to the gym, change, work out, shower, and be back at your desk before your lunch hour is up.


Read more: What Happens To Our Brains When We Exercise And How It Makes Us Happier

Read A Book

Yes, an actual book–preferably a novel, and preferably a long one. Why? Because regular, sustained engagement in written narrative can actually benefit your brain. First, there’s the high-minded literature-seminar argument—that reading connects us with “richer, broader, and more complex models of experience” for understanding our own lives, as one researcher puts it.

And then there are the scientific findings that actually bear those claims out. Some studies have shown that those who read regularly for pleasure have better planning, prioritizing, and decision-making skills than those who don’t. There’s also evidence that pleasure reading can help us cope with stress, anxiety, and depression, and subsequently to fend off illnesses like dementia.

Read more: How Changing Your Reading Habits Can Transform Your Health

Take Two Hours Off

To be fair, this one probably isn’t up to you. But if you do want to ask for permission to take a longer lunch break, there are a few ways to plead your case. First, the most creative ideas need what psychologists term an “incubation period” in order to germinate. It isn’t merely difficult to come up with great ideas on the fly, our minds aren’t built to do so–at least not indefinitely. One of the ways our brains solve problems is by working on them behind the scenes, without our conscious minds even being aware of it until inspiration strikes.

Second, our brains get fatigued after continuous use, just like our muscles, and an hour might not be long enough for them to fully recover. “If you’re constantly making decisions,” says Josh Davis, “it becomes very hard to do important, thoughtful work.” Giving our brains the time they need to rest allows us to get back to work recharged, as opposed to being merely less worn out than we were.


Now go explain that to your boss. And if you do manage to score a two-hour lunch break, use the first hour to get food for your belly and the second as food for thought.

Read more: The Scientific Case For Taking A Two-Hour Lunch Break

Related: Has Lunch Ruined Your Productivity?


About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.