Is Lunch a Waste of Time — or a Productivity Booster?

Many professionals today treat lunch as just another office task to cram into some portion of their day. Though skipping lunch seems like an efficient use of time, the midday break can be mentally rejuvenating and, in some ways, more productive than staying glued to your chair.

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It’s 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, and Yen Ha and Michi Yanagishita have left their office to munch hot dogs and French fries at one of the oldest bars in New York. Elsewhere in the city harried professionals are sitting at their desks and shoveling food into their mouths while they write memos or reply to emails. But Yen and Michi do not care. They are out to lunch, and they don’t feel guilty about it.

“We work long hours,” says Ha, who, along with Yanagishita, runs an architectural firm in New York.  “Lunch is really important for us to have a recharge of energy and just take a break. To get your head out of the computer, out of the mindset of whatever you’re doing–I think that’s part of the reason we always eat lunch out.”

The two architects, who sometimes work 12-hour days, are prolific lunchers. They bounce around lower Manhattan to find a different restaurant each day. Yen says they only skip lunch once or twice a year. They eat lobster sandwiches, ramen, Mexican street food, and every cuisine in between. They meticulously document every lunch on their blog,, and have even drafted a lunch manifesto.

This dedication to a midday meal makes them unusual in a professional world which often casts lunch as a workplace inefficiency instead of a deserved break.

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There has always been an opportunity cost associated with lunch–if you’re taking a break to eat, you’re not making money for the boss. Even in the 1800’s, in urban centers like New York, you were likely to see “floods of men rushing from their offices, gobbling this meal at top speed, and rushing back to work,” says culinary historian Laura Shapiro. She’s one of the curators of an exhibit currently showing at the New York Public Library chronicling the history of lunch in the city.

Shapiro and Rebecca Federman, the exhibit’s other curator, say lunch has always been a slapdash affair for the average American worker. Before Prohibition, saloons popularly offered a free, simple lunch with a five-cent beer. The first cafeteria opened in New York City in 1898, allowing workers to grab a tray and quickly serve themselves the food they wanted. Imitators soon spawned around the country and now dominate corporate offices. Fast food was born in 1902 through the Automat, a restaurant chain that offered fresh Sunday dinner staples like macaroni and cheese through a vending machine-like contraption, with customers on one side and cooks on the other.

“It’s about getting back to work,” Shapiro says. “It’s about speed. Those things have just always been the case. Wherever you have a crazed work culture, you’re going to have [quick lunches].”

But in today’s age of longer work hours and lower job security, even the typical American quick-lunch is disappearing. In 1990, more than half of Americans took at least 30 minutes for lunch, according to a Gallup Poll. Today only one third of workers take a lunch break away from their desk. Even the “power lunch,” where big-time bosses make business decisions over a sit-down meal, seems to be in danger. A survey last year found that executives are twice as likely to bring lunch from home over going to a real restaurant.

Though it’s easy to rationalize skipping lunch or eating at your desk, the break can actually be good for your productivity. Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace, says getting away from your desk can provide a boost in creativity.

“Never taking a break from very careful thought work actually reduces your ability to be creative,” she says. “It sort of exhausts your cognitive capacity and you’re not able to make the creative connections you can if your brain is more rested. If you’re skipping lunch to continue to push forward in a very intense cognitive capacity, then you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.”

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Going outside for lunch, as opposed to eating in the break room or the cafeteria, can also be mentally rejuvenating, Elsbach says. And it provides an excuse for you to get up out of your office chair for a significant amount of time. Research shows that sitting all day leads to an increased chance of heart disease, even if you regularly exercise.

Lunching with coworkers also provides an opportunity for collaboration not always possible in the office. “People have creative thoughts and can work on problems in a less task-oriented environment,” Elsbach says. “They actually make progress on problems because they’re not under the stress of having to come up with something.”

Ha and Yanagishita often take designs and sketches on their lunches so they can work while they wait for their food. The new surroundings help them think differently.

“Even though we sit next to each other [at work], we find it incredibly difficult to have a conversation,” Yanagishita said. “When you start to have a conversation, all of a sudden you get an email or you get a phone call. [Lunch] allows us to set aside time where we talk to each and other and not somebody else. It’s work too, but we can do it an environment where we’re not distracted by anything.”

Not everyone is convinced that a lunch break is particularly useful. Some view it as an obstacle to getting to the end of the workday.  “Nothing in American office culture is more overrated than the lunch hour,” Slate managing editor Rachael Larimore recently wrote in response to a column praising lunch breaks. “My work day is intense and all-encompassing. I really don’t see the benefit of extending it by an hour just so I can break for lunch.”

Others may be discouraged from lunching by their office culture or fear being viewed as lazy. There is no federal labor law mandating that workers receive lunch breaks, so businesses are often left to determine their own policies. “I have worked in places where lunch was not necessarily frowned upon, but it was understood that you came back quickly,” Federman says.

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We live in a culture that celebrates busyness, as one New York Times columnist recently pointed out. But office workers are increasingly being encouraged to reclaim their leisurely rights. This spring McDonald’s launched an Occupy-tinged campaign based on the idea that workers should rise up and eat out for lunch. The Las Vegas tourism bureau aired a similar commercial centered around vacation days, which Americans are also notorious for not using.

Taking a full lunch can be viewed as a sacrifice of time, but skipping lunch is a mental sacrifice all its own. For Ha, who has a husband and two small children, lunch actually provides a small reprieve from the challenges of being a business owner, wife and mother.

“I miss the social aspect of going out,” she says. “And I’ve been recouping that through lunch and I think that makes me just feel better. I know I can go out and be part of a scene at lunch time or catch up with my friends. I think it makes me a happier person.”