Taking time away from your desk is a crucial part of self-care – but for Stylist’s Moya Crockett, unlearning bad office habits was harder than expected…
Working in an office is a bit like being at school, in the sense that most people eventually have a ‘thing’. By ‘thing’, I mean a facet of their identity that comes to define them, whether they’re known as the funny one, the fitness fanatic or the bookworm.
Once upon a time, I would have said that my ‘thing’ in the Stylist office was being the one who always had an opinion on the day’s political news, or – less charitably – the one most likely to forget an important meeting. But in recent months, I’ve realised that that’s not my ‘thing’ at all. No, in the eyes of my colleagues, I am – drumroll, please – The One Who Never Takes a Proper Lunch Break.
Let’s be clear: I’m not proud of this title. I’m not a fan in the slightest of ‘hustle porn’, the culture – according to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian – of “suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day”, then posting boastfully about it on social media.
In fact, generally speaking, I think I have a pretty good work-life balance. I rarely check my professional email account at weekends, and I try not to take on extra projects when I know I already have too much on my plate. Overall, I think I’m reasonably good at setting boundaries.
But for some reason, I’ve always struggled to set those boundaries around my lunch hour. At 1.10pm, when many of my colleagues have begun to trickle out of the office in search of fresh air and sustenance, I can usually be found at my desk, hammering away at an article or trying to catch up with emails. If I do leave the building to run to the Pret over the road, I’m often the first one back in my seat.
My bosses aren’t pressuring me to behave as though I’m shackled to my desk – Stylist launched its Reclaim Your Lunch Break campaign a full four years ago, and digital editor Kayleigh virtually begs me to go outside on a daily basis. So why am I like this?
Much of it, I think, can be attributed to the fact that I never, ever feel like I’m 100% on top of my to-do list – and when I know I have five big tasks to complete before the end of the day, the idea of taking an hour off seems almost scandalously inefficient. It sounds swotty, but I know I’m not the only one. One survey in 2017 found that most UK adults take just 34 minutes for lunch, while new research commissioned by JustEat shows that 68% of workers admit to eating lunch at their desks.
“We’re all suffering from busy women syndrome,” says Stylist’s guest digital editor Katie Piper, when I speak to her about feeling guilty for taking a proper break. “Whenever you look at Instagram, you see people juggling plates and showing off about what they’re doing.
“You can end up feeling bad when you take a lunch break – like you’re being a bit of a loser, or too self-indulgent. But we should be carving out time for ourselves, too.”
Piper says she’s sure that I’d see the positive effects of taking a proper lunch break over a period of time. So for one week, I’m given a challenge: to take a full hour for lunch, and keep a diary of how it makes me feel. Here’s how I got on.
Day 1 – Monday
Mondays are always busy for me, as it’s the day I write up Stylist’s Woman of the Week column. When the clock strikes 1pm, I’ve yet to finish transcribing my interview with Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil, the founders of London’s Black Girl Fest, and I desperately want to be allowed to carry on working. But my boss is staring at me meaningfully, so I begrudgingly put on my coat and trudge outside.
It’s a beautiful autumnal day in London, one of those cold-but-sunny afternoons when the sky is a milky blue and the leaves are aflame. But I feel like I’m being punished, as if having to leave the office is the equivalent of being put on the naughty step. (Seriously: what has happened in my life to make me this way?)
I also feel more than slightly aimless. What do people do for an entire hour every day? Lacking any better ideas, I head to the park around the corner, find a bench and reflexively check Twitter on my phone. But then I see a tweet from someone who emailed me that morning, and realise I never got back to them. Before I know it, I’m hammering out work emails from the park. I’m not sure this technically counts as a proper lunch break.
Day 2 – Tuesday
Aware that I didn’t really enter into the spirit of the challenge yesterday, I decide to go for a walk during today’s lunch break. The Stylist offices are in Holborn, one of the many parts of central London that can transform from polluted and ugly to tranquil and beautiful within the turn of a corner. But despite having worked at Stylist for two and a half years, I probably only know about six streets around here really well.
I set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes and strike out westwards without any particular destination in mind. By the time the alarm goes off, signalling that it’s time for me to turn back, I’m almost in Marylebone – a neighbourhood I genuinely thought was on the other side of London. I feel slightly astonished, and extremely smug, that I’ve managed to cover so much ground.
When I return to my desk, I feel clear-headed, relaxed and energised. Really, this shouldn’t be such a revelation. Research has found that exposure to natural environments lowers stress (including the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure), while another study has shown that walking boosts both energy levels and mood. Marching through London might not have the same benefits as strolling through a sun-dappled forest, but it’s a damn sight better than sitting in an air-conditioned office.
Day 3 – Wednesday
Pumped by the success of yesterday’s lunch break, I was looking forward to going for another long walk today. But the morning runs away with me: it takes me longer to break the back of an article than I expected, and by the time 1pm rolls around, I’m feeling decidedly fretful. This isn’t surprising – the mental tension caused by incomplete tasks is so common that it even has a name (the Zeigarnik effect).
But knowing that my feelings of anxiety are normal doesn’t help me in the short-term. Ordinarily, I’d never go out for lunch without filing a piece I was meant to have finished: the very thought makes me feel panicked and guilty. Nevertheless, I drag myself outside.
It’s tragic, but I simply can’t bring myself to take a full hour – the unfinished article is so present in my mind that I find it difficult to think about anything else. Instead, I allow myself 20 minutes to walk around in the sunshine. Breaking from work for as little as 15 minutes has been shown to sustain concentration and energy levels throughout the day, and the Pomodoro Technique – a well-regarded time management method – even recommends taking 20-minute breaks after every 100 minutes of solid work, to give your brain a chance to relax and regroup.
It’s undeniable that spending 20 minutes in fresh air makes me feel calmer and sharper, and when I return to my desk, I realise I know exactly how to finish the article I’ve been grappling with unsuccessfully for hours. Note to self: a short break is always better than no break at all.
Day 4 – Thursday
My attempt at disconnecting goes much better today. My friends and I started a book club last year, and a package arrived on my desk this morning containing the novel we’re reading next, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. It’s a doorstep of a book, and as we’re meeting to discuss it in just six days, I feel motivated to spend my lunch break reading.
I return to the park, find a bench and crack open the novel. Written in a theatrical, technicolour style that reminds me of both Lolita and a Greek tragedy, it’s not the easiest book to get into – but having to really focus on the words makes me feel like I’m doing something productive, rather than simply killing time until I’m allowed to get back to work.
Before I know it, I’ve finished the first two chapters – and it’s time for me to head back to the office. Maybe a really good book is the key to getting me to take my lunch hour seriously.
Day 5 – Friday
Today, I stroll around the neighbourhood for 20 minutes before heading to the park to dive back into Fates and Furies (I’m hooked). When I return to the office, I feel refreshed and cheery: fully ready to power through the afternoon’s tasks.
It makes sense that reading is a good lunch break activity, whether or not it’s done outside or paired with a walk. Not only does it give our eyes a rest from staring at screens, reading fiction and poetry has also been proven to improve rationality and creativity, reduce stress and help us retain information more easily. And all of these benefits are particularly useful on a Friday afternoon, when I’m wrapping up the week’s work and looking ahead to the weekend.
I’ll be honest: while I knew I’d fallen into bad habits when it came to taking breaks from work, I was genuinely shocked at how challenging I found this week. Without properly realising it, I’d begun to associate leaving the office at lunchtime with slacking off, or simply not being as efficient as I could be.
But in reality, taking time away from my desk to get outside – even if it was just for 20 minutes – made me more efficient and productive. I felt less anxious about my workload when I returned to my computer after going outside, and was able to see my way out of tricky tasks by simply leaving them alone for a bit.
There will always be days when I can’t take an entire hour for lunch; that’s life. But I’ve learned that actually, the days when I can afford to give myself a break are much more frequent than I’d assumed. To paraphrase grandmas the world over: a bit of fresh air won’t kill me.
For one day only on Thursday 15 November, Katie Piper has taken over stylist.co.uk as part of The Kindfulness Project, packing the site with articles on what she’s learned about empathy and the importance of self-care.
For similarly inspiring and uplifting content, check out Katie Piper’s Extraordinary People, available on Apple Podcasts now.
Images: Unsplash, Getty Images