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Refueling my mind and my belly by taking back my lunch hour

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
Every day for a week, Addie Broyles brought her lunch to work and made herself leave her desk for at least 20 minutes to eat. She found it easier to work with a full stomach and a rested mind.

I hate to break it to you, but you cannot outwork your computer.

The humming box on your desk at work is a multitasking machine, running multiple programs simultaneously, autosaving spreadsheets and reports, pinging you with new e-mails, keeping open those Internet tabs of articles you intend to read and streaming into your already oversaturated brain the new Arcade Fire album you just bought on iTunes.

For those of us who work in front of a computer, we spend eight (or more) hours a day just trying to keep up with our to-do lists and the steady influx of tasks that come through our in-boxes, often stopping only to use the restroom, fetch the mail or a soda, dig a piece of chocolate out of the office stash or reheat leftovers that we shovel into our mouths between clicks of the mouse.

If you're lucky, you trek out of the office to a nearby sandwich shop, grab a turkey club, lug it back to your desk and mindlessly consume it while answering e-mails.

Our computers don't need a break, so why should we?

Catherine McCarthy, who recently wrote "The Way We're Working Isn't Working" with Tony Schwartz (Free Press, $28), says taking a break at lunch is important from both a nutritional and productivity perspective. According to the American Dietetic Association, 20 percent of us skip lunch altogether and most people eat at their desks two to three times a week.

Rather than working mindlessly for a long period of time, McCarthy and Schwartz recommend in the book breaking up your day into shorter, more focused segments that are separated by designated breaks for recharging. The biggest, most important break? Lunch.

It's easier than it sounds to actually stop working for an hour in the middle of the day to eat. Working through lunch has become ingrained in our work ethic, and despite the evidence that doing more than one task at a time hinders overall productivity, it can be hard to convince both bosses and their employees that they need to recharge their minds and their bellies in the middle of the day.

McCarthy says it doesn't matter if you read a book or magazine, listen to music, call a friend or go on a walk; the important thing is that you are recharging.

"When people are eating at their desk, they are multitasking," she says, which means they aren't paying attention to how much they are eating. "It takes 20 minutes for your brain to tell you that it's full, and if you aren't paying attention to the food itself, you're not able to hear those clues."

Your keyboard, mouse, phone and desktop are also probably some of the most germ-covered surfaces you touch in any given day, she says. (Think about that the next time you pop a chip in your mouth while staring at the screen.)

Plus, you're not really saving any time by eating and working at the same time. "There's proof it will take 25 percent longer to do both tasks," she says. "Lunch is taking longer and the task is taking longer."

To test out McCarthy's theory, I made it a point to take back my lunch (to borrow a phrase McCarthy and Schwartz like to use) every day for a week. I didn't schedule any work-related lunches during the middle of the day, and I forced myself to step away from my desk for at least 20 minutes to eat. I packed most of my lunches and ate them as consciously as possible while sitting on a couch that faced windows. (It's too hot out or else I probably would have ventured to tables outside our building.)

Rather than read blogs, online articles or Twitter updates, which is how I usually pass the time while eating at my desk, I turned the pages of a properly bound paperback book and let my mind drift away from the information-overloaded world it usually inhabits during the workweek.

At each lunch, the guilt I felt at the beginning for letting the e-mails and phone calls go unanswered started to go away. Bite by bite, I felt less frantic about the work that needed to be done and, surprisingly, more confident that I'd have the energy to pick back up where I started when my 30 minutes of me time was over.

At the end of the week, I felt confident about both the quality and quantity of work I had accomplished, even though I'd spent more than an hour and a half "lounging" on company time.

I'm beginning to see work less like a 40-hour marathon and more like a series of 100-meter hurdles, which are much easier to tackle on a full stomach and with a rested mind.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504