Most Americans are gearing up for one of our biggest holidays- and biggest meals- of the year. At Thanksgiving, we plan, prepare, travel, and shop simultaneously for stuffing mix and stretchy (but flattering) pants. And in the spirit of the holiday, most Americans are counting their blessings. I'm wondering if, in addition to gratitude, there something else we can takeaway from the day and it's this: no multitasking while eating.
Sure, most of us will be enjoying turkey, but that's not the only thing we have in common. Thanksgiving is one of the few meals that you simply eat and enjoy. That's it.
What if every meal, everyday was like that?
Whether you run out and grab something from a restaurant or bring leftovers from home, about 40 percent of us eat lunch at our desks. Most of us do this because we believe we'll get more done. And if you're like me and often work from home, it might seem utterly ridiculous to sit down at the table to eat when there is no one to talk to and the computer and phone are just a couple feet away. I believe I'll get through more items on my to-do list if I multi-task.
But working through lunch only feels more productive. In fact, "...research shows that there are tremendous performance advantages to stepping away from your computer, and even more pluses if you can get outside. Taking a break from cognitively taxing work improves creative thinking," says Kimberly Elsbach, professor of management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Davis, "and everybody's job has a creative component, such as problem-solving, managing teams or finding creative solutions." Not to mention taking a break from that steady stream of emails helps reduce stress and, in turn, helps keep you be healthier.
These research findings make sense, but even if you know the right thing to do it can be difficult to actually do it -- especially when the alternatives and distractions are so appealing in the moment. This is the bigger issue I have with food. Aside from nightly dinner with my family and big holiday meals like Thanksgiving, I only eat while doing something else -- email, Facebook, writing client reports, and paying bills. When I'm not eating at my computer, I'm eating with my right hand with my phone in my left. I find it startling but not uncommon to look down and notice my plate is empty but I don't have any memory of taking bites. It's strange and completely unsatisfying.
Recently, after several days in a row like this, I started to wonder what simple thing I could do to enjoy my food more while still feeling productive. As shown in this video, I decided to make a positive change by trying to avoid multitasking while eating.
By 5:15am, I'd already failed. I always drink my coffee while skimming the news and email first thing in the morning. This habit is so ingrained that I didn't even realize that I'd broken my rule for the day, and it was still dark out. Rather than start off all wrong, I decided to revise my plan and focus exclusively on food. Drinking while doing other things was within bounds.
A couple hours later, I passed my first big hurdle: breakfast. I ate while chatting and enjoying the last few minutes with my daughter before we headed to the bus stop for school. I felt empowered and thought -- no problem, I can do this. As lunch got closer, I found myself putting off going to fix my sandwich so that I could complete just a couple more things before taking a break. I waited until I was starving, and then headed into the kitchen, fixed a plate, and sat down at the counter to eat -- no phone, no email, no social media documentation. I'll be honest, this was difficult and felt awkward even though I was alone. It was difficult again when I came back for a snack later in the day. I felt the tug of my phone and computer roughly every three seconds, and chewing faster didn't help. That said, I did notice feeling less frazzled as the day progressed. I also didn't notice any reduction in actual activities accomplished. My typical level of productivity remained the same. The truth is that anything I'm doing while eating can easily be accomplished at other times during the day -- and likely done even faster and better because I'm more focused.
At the end of the day, I felt good about the accomplishment, but unsure that I could break my multitasking habits for good. While clearly helpful in creating a greater sense of calm and allowing me to enjoy my food more, this will be a tough change because the pattern is so ingrained.
More creativity, productivity, and greater enjoyment out of life are two things that most (all?) of us want. Avoiding multitasking while you eat is a simple way to get more of both in your life. Maybe this Thanksgiving will be the first distraction-free meal of many for you in the coming year.