Probably one of the most important things you can do for your stress levels, and in order to become more active in your intellectual mind (the source of creativity, problem-solving ability and rational thought), would be to take a proper lunch break of an hour every day.
Activated default network
Our brains have a real need to spend a decent chunk of each day with the ‘default network’ in our cortex being activated. This is essentially the state we go into when we are daydreaming or in a positive mental state, but not specifically mentally focused on a particular task or activity.
For lots of people, this would happen anyway as part of your job – if your job has aspects that are purely physical where you can go into a kind of ‘daydream state’, or even if you have a lot of meetings where you don’t have to pay that much attention!
For others, this might happen on their commute – if you travel by train and spend a lot of that time staring out the window and daydreaming, for example, and you feel pretty positive during that time.
No space for default mode
But for many of us, our days could involve a long drive or cycle (where you have to concentrate!) followed by a pretty full-on day requiring lots of concentration and no break from this. This could then be followed by a social event where again you are focusing (albeit in a fun way!) followed by a drive or cycle home (where you have to concentrate). Then comes sleep.
So this means you have had an entire day with your brain having zero opportunity to go into default mode. Over time, having lots of days like this will have a significant negative impact on your stress levels. Just like we need to brush our teeth, or they end up falling out, and we need a certain amount of sleep and food and so on, so also we need a certain amount of time with our brain’s ‘default network’ being activated. This is because time spent in this mode helps to clear and lower stress levels. When in this mode, intuitively we formulate future plans, and unconsciously we process, sort and organise our thoughts and ideas.
A lunch break provides a good time to top up on this precious time.
Good use of your lunch break
Ideas for things that you could do on a lunch break that would allow your brain to activate the ‘default network’ include:
- Slow breathing
- Walking (without podcast etc)
- Reading / writing (so long as it is for enjoyment not a specific ‘purpose’)
- Listening to music
- Having a cup of tea.
You get the idea!
Starting good habits
Summer is an ideal time to begin this habit. The warmer weather makes it more appealing to spend time outside, which is in itself something that relaxes us at a deep level. This also means you may find it easier to convince yourself to take a proper lunch break at this time of year. By doing so, you can then begin to build up positive pathways in your brain around the idea of taking a lunch break.
This can then be carried forward into the rest of the year. Taking a lunch break – or the equivalent at some other point in our day – is something we need to prioritise the whole year round.
Reaping the benefits
I have worked with a range of different people who said at first that there was absolutely no way they could start taking a lunch break. These people included a person who works in film / television where the culture is that no-one takes a lunch, a person who is a doctor in a hospital where it would be very unusual to take a lunch break, and a person who works in a high-up role for a high-profile charity where again no-one ever really takes a lunch.
However, all of these people did eventually start taking proper lunch breaks, and all of them have seen fantastic results from this. They have found that although they are putting in less hours, they are so much more productive. As a result, they are getting more done and producing higher quality work or performing in their role more effectively.