Don't skip lunch - science says it can boost your productivity

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Your brain uses more energy than any other organ, so lunchtime decisions can make or break your afternoon.

Have you ever found yourself sitting at your desk, stomach growling, but unable to pull away from what you're doing?

It's happened to all of us: you're immersed in a project, working efficiently, and you step away "just for a moment" to grab lunch. As you're walking, your phone rings or you bump into someone, and all of a sudden, your mind switches gears, and the momentum you'd built up on that project is gone.

There are other times too, when you get so focused on what you're doing that you just plain forget to eat. All of a sudden, you look up from the computer screen, it's 3pm, and you're starving.

These scenarios can make it really easy for productive people to skip lunch or eat mindlessly while working, but both of those options can actually decrease your productivity, even though it might seem counterintuitive. You might be able to work for hours without a break when you're in the flow - deeply focused - but your brain may not appreciate it.

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There are a myriad of articles and studies you can find saying the same thing, In fact, the Harvard Business Review, British Journal of Health Psychology, and the World Health Organization have all reported it: what you eat (or don't) impacts your productivity.

According to Scientific American, your brain uses a whopping 20% of all the energy you consume over the course of the day - more energy than any other organ.

This makes feeding your brain critical. Unfortunately, many people make their midday meal one of processed junk that makes them feel tired and sluggish. If you grab fast food at lunch, your productivity will definitely tank. All those trans fats, added sugars, and modified foods wreak havoc on your brain.

However, when we make decisions in advance about what we're going to eat, when we're mentally sharp (as opposed to tired or preoccupied), we make smarter, healthier decisions (i.e. fruit salad instead of cake).

So how do you do it?

The easiest way to make sure your lunch boosts your productivity is to plan ahead.

Here are 5 quick tips for brain-boosting lunches all week:

  1. Automate your lunches. Prepare them in advance over the weekend, so all you have to do is grab them and go. This way you know what you're eating will nourish you instead of zapping your strength.
  2. Don't skip breakfast either. To turn your coffee into brain fuel, try my favorite biohack, and make sure you're not starting your day with sugar. That will set you up for a long day of cravings and slumps - definitely inefficient. And if you're especially efficient, you can automate your breakfast too.
  3. Make sure you're getting enough multi-colored veggies. A lunch salad with dark greens, colorful vegetables, and high-quality proteins always boosts my productivity. To put it very, very simply: different color vegetables have different phytonutrients, so when you "eat a rainbow" you get more benefits than if you only eat a few colors of food. Oh, and eating more fruits and veggies has been correlated with a flourishing life, just in case you want that in addition to productivity.
  4. Make it easy, then easier. If you have candy on your desk, you're going to eat it. If you have an apple on your desk, you'll probably eat it if you're hungry. If you want to get some healthy fats to fuel your brain, keep some walnuts handy. Plan ahead so if you don't want to leave your desk, you don't have to. Bring your lunch, your bottled water, and put your healthiest snacks closest to hand.
  5. If you're going out, plan ahead. If you know you're going to lunch with your co-workers, taking a quick peek at the menu in advance can help you make better choices. For most of us, a carb-heavy lunch makes the afternoon less productive; so look at the menu when you're not hungry. That way, you can find an alternative to that fettucine alfredo that looks so tasty when you haven't eaten in 4 hours.

Even though I work from home, when I'm organized, I have a week's worth of salad veggies and high-quality proteins prepared for quick lunchtime assembly. If I'm super-organized, I'll pre-make my salads, excluding the meat and wet veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers (those go in a separate container, maybe even marinated in balsamic vinegar and spices). Then I'll put them in bowls with lids, so they don't take more than 30 seconds to grab and bring back to my home office.

If you're not a natural planner, all of this preparation might seem a bit obsessive, but you must be organized to boost your productivity. The more organized you are, the more efficient you'll become; the more efficient you are, the more productive you'll be. It's easy to accept that when it comes to your to-do list, but as Ron Friedman says in the Harvard Business Review, the analogy of food as fuel is flawed.

"With fuel, you can reliably expect the same performance from your car no matter what brand of unleaded you put in your tank. Food is different. Imagine a world where filling up at Mobil meant avoiding all traffic and using BP meant driving no faster than 20 miles an hour. Would you then be so cavalier about where you purchased your gas? Food has a direct impact on our cognitive performance, which is why a poor decision at lunch can derail an entire afternoon."

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