Life, Work

According to a 2011 study on the subject, around 80% of us still eat lunch at our desks. I quit eating lunch at my desk and not only has it been incredibly enjoyable, I’m much more productive as well.

Everyone Says Don’t Eat Lunch at Your Desk

For the past few years, there have been a lot of articles written about the benefits of not eating lunch at your desk. A simple Google search of “eat lunch desk” quickly reveals articles from popular publications. Some examples are: CBS News with Eating Lunch At Desk: Distasteful, Entrepreneur with Why You Should Never Eat Lunch at Your Desk, or Huffington Post with Is It Better To Take A Real Lunch Break Than To Eat At Your Desk?.

My Previous Justifications

Some of the common thoughts that would go through my head as I would laugh off the advice time and time again:

  • I like browsing the Internet during lunch.
  • I can get things done while I eat.
  • I don’t like eating somewhere else.
  • I’m such a rockstar that I just keep on working through lunch!
  • It’s a waste of time.

Adopting this practice just didn’t resonate with me. For some reason, I was always able to find something to justify ignoring the advice. I thought I knew better, for sure, than some advice in a magazine, blog, or newspaper. Interestingly enough, the first response from a friend of mine was similar to what I usually thought:

“Depends what you spend your time doing. If I feel like being productive, I’ll watch personal development videos and take notes as I go. It’s a good way to consume information when you have limited capability, like when you’re stuffing food in your facehole.”

Scientific Findings Too

I also felt like I could be productive doing other things. Productivity is always a good thing, right? Well, again, plenty has been written to contradict this like Fast Company’s If You Think You’re Productive During Lunch Think Again article. I responded to my buddy, saying that not only were there tons of articles espousing the greatness of not eating lunch at your desk, but also science to back up what they’re saying:

“These results suggest that enhancing meal memory by paying attention to food while eating can reduce later intake and are consistent with the suggestion that memory plays an important role in appetite control.”

From: Focusing on food during lunch enhances lunch memory and decreases later snack intake.

Personal Discoveries and Findings After 1 Week

The very first day I started feeling great about my decision. Harboring slight regrets and arguing with myself using the aforementioned justifications, I went to one of my regular lunch spots, ordered my food, and instead of taking it back to the office and my desk, I wandered a couple blocks in the city to a sunny area where a lot of folks convene during lunch time. Here’s the location near the E*Trade office here in downtown San Francisco:

View Larger Map

I found my mind wandering to other things and realized that I was actually enjoying my food a lot more; remarking internally on how the bread actually taste in the sandwich. Finding joy in listening to the conversations of the bike messengers, glancing over at people sitting and writing things near the fountain, and warming my face in the sunshine, it didn’t take long before I knew I had made a good choice.

Spending Time Outside the Office

Just spending time not inside the office is amazing in and of itself. Spending that time outside eating is just an additional bonus and possible thanks to the mild and consistent climate here in downtown San Francisco. Not only is it just nice to have a different environment for a little bit during the day, exposure to other people and their activities is quite stimulating and fun. I find inspiration from others and what they do so being around others completely outside my realm of normal activities in the office is a great bonus too.

I Was Eating Boring and Repetitive Lunches

By having the office as my place for eating, it had restricted me to a diet that wasn’t particularly varied. I consider myself a bit of a foody, so it was odd to discover I had started this behavior without even knowing it. Because of the geographic location of my office, I had basically created a small circle of a couple blocks as my possibilities for lunch. Without even thinking about it, I would make a rapid decision as to what was going to satisfy that sort of eating thing I was doing every day. I wasn’t actually thinking about meals or choices at all. Since there wasn’t a clear separation between eating lunch and working, I wasn’t really doing either of them well.

I Was Very Wrong About Productivity

I had reasoned with myself multiple times regarding productivity. I had fully convinced myself those extra 30-60 minutes I could spend out eating lunch was better spent towards tasks. I was totally wrong about this.

The quality of the productivity I was getting during those 30-60 minutes was peanuts compared to the actual productivity I feel upon returning from lunch.

I am getting so much more done immediately upon returning from lunch; much more than the 30-120 minute window of productivity surrounding my previous lunchtime activity.

Not only has my productivity increased, but the amount of time I spend in a state of eating lunch or at lunch has decreased a lot. Eating at my desk, I would often find myself nibbling on my lunch an hour or so after I started; sometimes even just an hour before leaving. I was in a state of perpetual munching alongside whatever I was trying to get done. Ultimately, I was doing both tasks poorly. By separating the two, I spend less time in lunch mode but I enjoy it more. I spend more time in work mode not thinking about food at all. That is a great tradeoff.

Separation Between Life and Work

Speaking of separation, one of the overall themes and bigger surprises was how much this practice improved my feelings regarding work-life balance. I’ve never had a job that mandated I eat at my desk, or even in the office. The choice was always available to me as to where, when, or how I enjoyed my lunch. I just mostly defaulted to eating lunch at my desk. However, by not ever exercising this choice, it turns out I was enjoying none of the benefit of it. A 2013 study backs up the finding that the choice itself is a tremendously important part of enjoying lunch at work where they found that:

“a critical element was having the freedom to choose whether to do it or not.”

Quoting the same study, it was revelead:

“…relaxing activities during lunch, freely-chosen by workers, led to the least amount of reported fatigue at the end of the day.”

Exercising my choice in the matter gave me a sense of freedom and entitlement that I wasn’t ever getting from eating at my desk. The choice was still available, but I wasn’t benefitting from it. This feeling has allowed me have greater sense of ownership over my time when I’m “at work.” Summing it all up:

I’m enjoying work more and I’m enjoying life more.

I can’t think of any good reason to go back to the way I was.

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  • Hoyt Smith

    Cheers! You’ve inspired me…

  • joey

    Considering the conditions of many (not all) SF tech companies, especially startups, it is hardly surprising that just leaving the office itself will give one a huge boost in morale and productivity. Working in dark buildings seems to be the norm, defying everything we as humans have ever learned about our light needs. I won’t even go into the over-crowded, open office productivity office plans and other productivity killing enhancements that are almost guaranteed to be found in a startup environment.

  • Hear hear!

  • I started this regime last year and its been amazing. Unfortunately, its tough to eat out in NYC during winter. But I compensate by watching videos/sports, but still away from my desk.
    I feel more energetic to come back and work. I understand context switching is tough, so I use postit note with the last task I was doing on the screen. Helps me to get back into groove lot quicker.

  • ThomasLaRock

    Wonderful post, thanks for sharing!

  • napolux

    Starting from January 2nd I begun to walk for nearly 2.5km around my office before having lunch in the office kitchen, completely separated from my work. It took me roughly 1 hour (the amount of time we have for lunch)

    I track my walks in RunKeeper and I’ll do my best to do it every day.

    No more lunch at my desk for me!

    Good luck!

  • CletusTSJY

    I’m not convinced. I always regret coming back to my desk after a long lunch thinking “I have to leave in 3 hours now. Where did the time go?”

  • Lovingdesigns

    Baah, i know i know! I’ll stop eating lunch and watch series during lunch! God damnit…

  • ClayF3rguson

    You are so right. An hour long break from the office during the day is what lunch is for. It’s not really for eating! Sitting in a chair 8 hours a day is killing our health also.

  • great post…

  • I read this during lunch.

  • herbert

    i read your nice post while eating lunch on my desk. so i guess it’s productive afterall

  • newsboy70

    You should eat lunch at your desk again. it will save you a lot of money. plus the polar vortex…

  • Gene Shin

    i ingress at lunch :)

  • Fuse

    Of course it really helps if you don’t work in a shitty part of town where there are literally no places to go eat your lunch. There is only one place in walking distance to go eat and one meal there is my entire calorie count for an entire day. Also, it costs a lot more than bringing my lunch. I could drive somewhere, but finding parking here is hard. While I totally agree with this article, I’ll still be eating lunch at my desk.

  • You are quite welcome! Glad you enjoyed.

  • Thanks for stopping by! Congratulations on the new regimen.

    I started tracking a lot of things this year as well. If you’re enjoying the whole tracking thing, I’d invite you to check out my previous blog post:

  • nitelite_ew

    I guess it would vary a lot from company to company, but at the company I work we have a nice sitting area so that you can get away from your desk while eating what ever food you have brought (for those of us who don’t feel like going out for lunch). I guess this varies quite a bit between countries/cultures as well.

  • I agree with this post. It all starts with one person doing this at their desk. Sooner or later, the entire team starts doing this too.

  • Even without choices outside of the office, you can always make it a policy to eat in a public area of the office and eat with other people in the office, preferably outside of your own department.

    One great way to socialize and also improve relations at the company and across departments is to spend time with others in the company. You don’t always get opportunities to interact with them on the projects you work on and on day-to-day work, but lunch is the hour where you can interact with people from all areas of the business, talk about life, work, and create better camaraderie.

  • DarkJava

    Ooops I am eating lunch while reading this article now. Shoot LOL

  • Mickey_disqus

    As I type this, some bastard is noisily eating at his desk next to me. Eating lunch at your desk makes your colleagues hate you. Fact.