I did something really shocking yesterday. Rebellious, even.
I went for lunch.
Not a "I went to Whole Foods to grab a pre-made salad" lunch, or "I waited at Speciality's for a sandwich" lunch. I actually ventured into a Thai restaurant down the street from where I've been working, requested a table for one, and proceeded to eat a hot, delicious pumpkin curry with prawns with fresh steamed rice.
The total time for this indulgence? 36 minutes, 56 seconds.
That's including the time it took to take the elevator down, walk around the block deciding what I felt like doing for lunch, eat, pay, and make it back to my desk before anyone realized I was gone.
When I returned to my computer and the afternoon feeling refreshed, recharged, and full.
Over the years in our fast-paced American work world, we've lost the art of lunch. Why is that?
I'm not talking about business lunches, which have a "purpose" beyond gaining sustenance. The purpose of business lunch is, of course, to shmooze, bond, and perhaps drink enough to say the things we really think and feel about each other's agendas to (hopefully) strengthen our business relationship. But a business lunch is by its very definition still business. You haven't shut off the valve where you're "doing something". A business lunch is yet another example of how in America, we have to make virtually everything we do productive. To just do something for the sake of its sheer enjoyment is seen as frivolous, a waste of time, as counterproductive.
But aside from a handful of high-up advertising executives I know who actually "do lunch" with their clients and colleagues, the vast majority of advertising folks I know spend their "business" lunch like this: hobbled over their laptop, mindlessly shoveling a salad into their mouth over the course of an hour, treating all their neighbors in their open work space to the smells of their food and sounds of them chewing. This behavior says to anyone watching "I have waaaaaay too much to do to actually stop and eat, I am sooooo busy!" To me, personally, it also says, "I am sad because I can't even break from my all-important, all-consuming workload to spend a mere fifteen minutes appreciating my meal."
At my last job in San Francisco, I was greatly impressed on the first day when at 12:30, almost the entire staff stopped what they were doing and sat together to eat lunch at a collection of small round tables in the agency's main lounge area. It was one of the traditions that made the job a lot of fun; when the office moved into the Presidio, a group of us in the creative department even took to watching Barefoot Contessa every day on the Food Network while eating our own reheated meals. Being marrooned out in No Man's Land watching Ina Garten make angel food cakes and lobster bisques for her Hamptons pals no doubt inspired us to start throwing impromptu potluck lunches and breakfast as well. This was in part to break up the monotony of the Presidio's scant availability of lunch options, and in part because we actually enjoyed spending time together, doing something together we all really loved: eating.
Not every agency has the bandwidth for its creative department to stop working for two hours to throw a giant, spontaneous waffle breakfasts. I get that. But it's not like work wasn't getting done, either. And while most days at the place I'm currently working, sitting at a restaurant for lunch is usually not an option, either. But there is a lovely garden behind the agency, though, where I've spent many days in the sun eating a salad or sandwich, taking about 15 minutes to soak in some Vitamin D and get my eyes off a screen for a while. Then I'm back to my desk, ready to focus again, grateful I got some fresh air in the middle of the day. I find these days are way better than the few I spend grabbing a salad and sitting at my computer, trying to "work" while also trying to not spill my food all over my keyboard. I find on those days I have a tendency to getting more anxious and stressed out.
Numerous studies over the years have confirmed things I think we all intuitively know: that taking breaks throughout the work day help productivity and that eating meals in a focused, thoughtful way increases satiety.
Because here's what bothers me most about the whole eating-over-your-laptop phenomenon: how much time do you really save? No, really? My guess is that even if you think you are saving time taking a bite of food and then writing a headline, you'd probably be able to write better headlines by simply a) eating your food for 15 minutes and then b) writing headlines for 15 minutes. That half hour spent trying to do both probably means you are doing neither task very well or very efficiently.
I get that there are days (and weeks) where there is simply too much to do that the lunch half hour becomes obsolete (and how very American that what was once an hour for lunch has been whittled down to a mere 30 minute). But as a habit? As the way we intend to spend the days of our work lives? We can do better than that. We can live better than that.
Here's what I propose. For one week, clear that half hour every day on your calendar. Find a place you can sit, preferably outside, for 15 minutes. Savor your food. Chew. Don't look at your phone. Go back to your desk and tackle whatever you need to do. See if you feel more focused. One day, find a restaurant, maybe a diner or another place that can serve up a hot meal cheap and quick (like Thai or Vietnamese) and take yourself to lunch. Go alone, or go with a coworker (although doing stuff with coworkers can be tricky if they're of the whole "must eat salad as quickly as possible while typing with my other hand" camp, too). Again: savor your food. Chew. Think about. Look around the restaurant at the other people eating there (and hello, if you work in advertising, this is basically just doing research, so if you struggle with every minute of your life needing to "be productive," you have the perfect excuse). And go back to your desk and see if you feel more rejuvenated, more productive, more creative, more human.
As you become a more "advanced" lunch eater, try daring and exciting new moves, like splurging on lunch at upscale restaurants or meeting a friend in a park for a picnic or popping into an art gallery or bookstore after eating. What! Having fun during lunch? You're insane! Get out of here with this crazy talk! I know. But I'm also happy, so something must be working, right?
Food is our friend. We literally have to consume it to live, and we should take pleasure in what we eat, whether that's a Thai curry or a delicious salad brimming with fresh vegetables or carrot cake. Our jobs are hard and tough. Life is hard and tough. Is it so much to ask to clear one half hour of your life in the middle of the day to take part in fulfilling an instrinsic human need? Is it too much to clear fifteen minutes to savor a meal away from your desk and actually enjoy eating it? Can we not have a tiny amount of joy and happiness in the context of our challenging, hyper productive lives?
Take a stand. Take back your lunch. Let's resurrect this dying art and give it the proper place in our lives that it deserves.
Agree with me? Let's have lunch sometime.