For most people, the day is an endless stream of priorities. But lunch? That might as well have a "Neglect me!" sticker on it, because only about 20 percent of employees take a meal break away from their work desks.
But here's the thing: Breaking from the crowd and planning out your lunch hour can bring big psychological benefits, leaving you happier and better prepared for everything you have to do. Here's why:
1. It's good for your brain. Each time you complete a small task, your brain releases feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, that keep you feeling happy and calm. Subsequently, if you plan your lunch hour and split it up into predictable segments, you can give yourself a quick mood pick-me-up each time you reach a milestone for the hour. Even if you don't map out all the time you have, you can use the scheduled lunch break to motivate yourself through rough mornings, telling yourself you conquered the first half of the day and that you've earned and deserve the reprieve.
2. You'll feel more in control of your day. As you work, you're required to be reactive to the needs of team members, buyers and shareholders. That requirement can go against the biology-based need people have to stay in control for the purpose of improving survival odds. Working out how your lunch break will go satisfies the natural craving you have to be in the driver's seat, helping you develop and maintain a healthy sense of autonomy, ego and self.
3. You need the rest. The constant decision making necessary to complete on-the-job tasks isn't free. Your brain needs fuel to make it work, and if you don't give yourself a break, nutrient and energy stores quickly can become depleted, leaving you less creative and emotionally less stable. A planned-out lunch break gives your brain a chance to rest, ensuring the opportunity to recharge.
4. It's better for your body. When you don't plan your lunch hour, you're more likely to grab something from the company cafeteria or, worse, the vending machine down the hall. Those snacks and meals might contain far more calories than you need, be nutritionally unbalanced or contain potentially harmful levels of sodium, preservatives and other additives. Any one of these elements can throw off the delicate balance of your hormones or blood sugar, leaving you more prone to stress, fatigue and depression.
5. It's a chance to make valuable connections. People naturally fear isolation--it's a protective evolutionary adaptation, as being part of a group offers a greater chance of survival. Connected to the fear of isolation is the fear of missing out on opportunities. Planned lunch hours can reduce these fears because they are a valuable venue for networking and connecting not just with your team, but also friends and family members.
6. A lunch plan makes the day more predictable--and that's less stressful. Most people find comfort in what is familiar. Additionally, having a plan is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. That said, when you don't know when you'll eat, work becomes somewhat unpredictable. You don't know, for example, if you'll get through 10 minutes or 60 before you can head out. That unpredictability makes it hard to decide what to do next or even how to interact with people. Penciling in your meal gives you back the ability to plan, offering a definitive point to hang other activities around so your brain doesn't have to deal with as many "what ifs".
7. A routine will establish a "worry-free" zone in your day. Setting a clear time for lunch means you can tell others on your team exactly when you will and will not be available. Because they're prepared for your absence, you likely won't worry so much about how they're doing without you. You can head things off in advance and just relax.
Many modern professionals take a "whenever" approach to on-the-job lunches, but psychologically, that way of feeding yourself is a lot like using chopsticks for soup. Stabilize yourself with more concrete midday meals and you'll likely see positive changes to your personal and company results.