Do you eat lunch? A few years ago I came up with an excellent time management technique to put more hours in my week – I stopped having a lunch break. I’d still eat lunch (anyone who knows me is laughing right now and saying ‘Obvs!’) but I’d mindlessly shovel it in while doing important things, you know, like email. I was very impressed with my productivity hack – I’d managed to put an extra 5 hours into my work week which meant 5 hours I didn’t need to find on the weekend to ‘stay on top of things’. Genius, right? Wrong!
The no-break epidemic
It turns out I’m not the only teacher giving up their lunch break. A quick and totally informal staffroom poll found that 74% of teachers at my school regularly work through lunch. Sometimes it’s lunch duty, or maybe it’s running a club or a revision class, or supervising detention but often, like me, people are just trying to get an extra hour into their day. To do fun stuff, like marking, photocopying and emails! We’re not giving ourselves permission to take a break.
Taking a break, and specifically taking time away from your desk, is good for you: both your mood and your productivity. For your break to be most effective, you need to mentally disengage from work thoughts. When you do this, even a short break can boost the brain’s attentional resources, leading to better focus and productivity. Not to mention the fact that taking a break creates opportunities for conversation, relaxation, maybe even a bit of entertainment and fun! If we’re serious about building school communities, then we need to be serious about taking breaks as they give us the opportunity to relate to each other in non-transactional ways.
It’s not just your productivity that suffers when you skip your lunch break. If you work through lunch, you’re using up your brain’s resources, constant work takes a toll on your cognition and can result in mental fatigue. Your brain uses the time you take for lunch to repair the overused neurons by absorbing the nutrients from the food you consume. When you take a long lunch break, you give your brain a chance to recuperate and re-energize itself, but even a short break is beneficial. As little as 10 minutes will improve your concentration and allow you to focus better, meaning the class you teach period 5 or period 6 is more likely to get the same version of you as the class you taught at the start of the day and not a second rate version of you.
Having read about the importance of taking a break, I decided it was time to shift my focus from time to energy. I was making the mistake of thinking working longer meant working smarter. So I changed my perspective: my intention was no longer to find more hours in my day, but to imbue my day with more energy so that in the hours I had, I’d get more done.
In Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says that work and rest are actually partners and that the better you are at resting, the better you are at working. Working hard and being productive are not the same thing. It is essential that we understand the importance of downtime.
Since I realised that I am not a machine, and that it is necessary to pause throughout the day, I’ve found I’m more refreshed in the afternoon. It isn’t always possible to have a full lunch hour, but it turns out the research is correct – a mini-break can be just as good. The key is to get away from your desk and switch off from work.
My new lunchtime routine is all about putting barriers between myself and ‘just one more email’. I lock my computer screen, leave the building and walk around the playground for 15 minutes or so, because for me it’s not a break if there’s no fresh air! I’ve been very pleasantly surprised how many people I run into for a chat, generally meaning I need to send less of those all important emails: win-win! When I get back to my office, I keep my computer locked. So even if it’s only one of the canteen’s finest cheese sandwiches I’m having for lunch, it’s the sandwich that gets my attention, one bite at a time, and not my computer screen.
And guess what – those ‘extra five hours’ I needed? Turns out they’re not quite as necessary as I thought!