Healthy Mind

‘I’m a Neuroscientist and Here’s Why Lunch Breaks Are Key to Optimizing Focus’

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Hustle culture has us working harder and longer—and it’s taking a toll on our health. But research shows that even short breaks during the day can spell big health benefits. So go ahead and give yourself a break (literally); Wellness Recess will provide you with the inspo you need to add more balance— and fun—to your day. See More

One of my favorite parts of studying abroad in France was lunch. French people never skip it, and when they do sit down for a meal, they really commit to the experience. A French lunch has several courses (and usually, a glass of wine or two). I definitely appreciated the opportunity to actually savor my meal and enjoy conversation.

A midday Pinot probably won't do many favors for your productivity, but according to Richard Davidson, PhD, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and the founder of Center for Healthy Minds, the French model has benefits for your brain—and it may be the key to optimizing your focus all day.

"We are often regulating our attention and concentrating on things, all while resisting distractions," he says. "It can be enormously helpful to take a break from that." Taking time away from your computer to recharge every day is key to optimizing your overall focus. Here's why.

The benefits of taking a real lunch break

Almost everyone eats lunch, but not everyone actually takes a lunch break. Now especially, it's easier than ever to neglect taking real breaks when you WFH. The lack of structure, no coworkers gathering to go out together, and massive to-do lists make it easier than ever to just eat lunch in front of the computer and power through the rest of the day.

But when you try to multitask through your meal, a few things happen. First, you don't really enjoy your food. "Eating while doing something else—whether it’s working, watching television, or using a smartphone—detracts from our ability to recognize internal cues for hunger and fullness, which can lead to overeating and less overall satisfaction from meals," Malina Malkani, RDN, creator of Solve Picky Eating, previously told Well+Good.

Furthermore, chowing down while blitzing through Slack can cause your focus and productivity to suffer. Taking a lunch break gives you a much-needed opportunity to reset and refocus after spending several hours working, focusing, or sitting through meetings. While "break" does mean walking away from your workspace, it also means taking the time to check in with yourself. "Instead of paying attention to all of the external things constantly pulling at us, simply attending internally and checking in with ourselves can help conserve our resources and renew and refresh our capacity to pay attention," Dr. Davidson says. He also says a good break has a few key elements involved, which he outlines below.

How to take a break that leaves you feeling recharged and more focused

Dr. Davidson says that not everyone will need the same type of break to feel their best. The point is to know when it's time to give yourself some time to reset. "Each person needs to find her or his formula that works for them, and it’s going to look different for everyone," Davidson says.

Not sure where it starts when it comes to taking a lunch break that helps you feel more energized, focused, and less drained? According to Dr. Davidson, a solid break might have these three parts: tuning in/checking in with yourself, mindfulness, and letting yourself just "be."

Check in with yourself

It's all too easy to ignore your internal signals that it's time for a break. This is why practicing checking in with yourself throughout the day is key. "In our culture, we don’t typically spend a lot of time checking in with our mind and body," says Dr. Davidson. "I think that if we take the time to ask ourselves 'How are we doing right now?' one of the things we’ll discover is that when we are honest in checking in with ourselves, we will all know when it is time to take a break."

Incorporate mindfulness into your lunch break

Mindfulness doesn't have to mean adopting a full-on meditation practice. You can practice mindfulness in your everyday life, including at lunch, which Dr. Davidson recommends.

"One of the things that I do every time I eat a meal is spend a few seconds before I eat to simply reflect on all the people who have been responsible for enabling the food that I am eating to be on the table," he says. For instance, a meal most certainly involves farmers, delivery workers, even the people who made the plates and utensils. "Just spending a few moments pausing and reflecting can remind us of the complex web in which each of us exists," he says. "That itself can be very nourishing, even more than the food."

Let yourself just "be"

Ever take a break that is actually more work in disguise? I'm definitely guilty of shifting from work mode to doing other tasks or errands, and guess what? That's not a break. This is why Dr. Davidson says to take your mindset from "doing" mode to just "being." Think about that: When's the last time you let yourself be in the moment, instead of focusing on what's next, or that stressful email, or even the dishes in the sink you need to wash? Taking some time to release the demands might be hard at first, but giving yourself even a small break from being in "on" mode will equal big benefits down the line.

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