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Cooking for One: It's your lunchtime

Lunch at Google in 2007. (Randi Lynn Beach)

In researching this month's Cooking for One column, I came across Take Back Your Lunch, a campaign by the Energy Project, consultants who work with companies to create a “better engaged workforce.” Their idea on the lunch front is this: Every Wednesday, go out and actually experience your lunch hour. The Web site suggests signing up for or organizing local meetups of like-minded office workers.

I talked with Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz, author of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” about the TBYL campaign and my own ideas about how to spend lunchtime. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.

Joe Yonan: How did Take Back Your Lunch get started?

Tony Schwartz: The Energy Project, the company I run, we go into companies and say basically that people aren’t meant to operate like computers, at high speeds for a long period of time. In fact, we’re rhythmic. And we were looking for a way to bring that message to the world in a simple, evocative way. And it dawned on us after we did a poll on Huffington Post that showed people were taking an average of 20 minutes for lunch and they were typically eating it at their desks, that this was the perfect way to bring attention to the issue of overwork, of work that’s too continuous. When we thought about it ourselves, we realized we’ve given up lunch too. It’s like giving up something that’s a constitutional right.

What were we thinking? The same thing everybody else does: one more hour in front of the laptop is one more hour of work. But it’s nonsense. What happens is, when people work continuously they get less and less efficient as the day wears on.

JY: We think we couldn’t possibly take the time, but we pay the price in other ways, right?

TS: In a world of lower demand, going out to lunch was literally a no-brainer. It was just something you did. Then you suddenly realize you’ve got more work than you think you have time to do it, and everything falls away that isn’t work. But the problem is, it isn’t about the hours you put in. it’s about the value you create during whatever hours you work. Going out to lunch is literally a way to refuel the tank. Not just with glucose, which is a good source of energy, but emotionally it’s a way to get a lift, it’s a way to get mentally refocused.

JY: What about companies like Google that provide free food on site? Does that count as a good refueling break in your mind?

TS: Fundamentally, my answer is, it’s way better than not doing it, so let’s grade on a curve here. Obviously, the risk is that people go and talk exclusively about work, but that’s just as possible if you go to a park or a restaurant. What’s wonderful at Google, and we’ve done a lot of work with them, is that people really do hang together. They use lunch because it’s so appealing, and it’s free, as either a true time to renew or, simply by default, more renewal than they’d be getting if they sat behind their computers.

JY: My situation is different.

TS: As the food editor, you shouldn’t just try to go out to lunch – it should be mandatory! And The Post should pay for it!

JY: I do like the way you think. I’m writing about this other idea, about actually cooking at work. I find cooking soothing, so for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to take some sort of break to put the food together, even if I do end up eating it at my desk. How does that fit in with your ideas?

TS: I don’t want to become some form of food police. The real key is, does the time you’re taking fuel renewal? Let’s take you. The key word is that it’s relaxing. You find cooking relaxing. That’s great, and for sure that’d be a good thing to do. Now, I don’t, so for me it would be stressful to make my own lunch. That distinction is important.

What people should do at lunchtime is not so much eat lunch as change channels. They should stop being linear and continuous in their work. So some people -- and I’ve done this for years and years -- run at lunch. That’s a great form of active renewal.

JY: So if you’re taking time to run at lunch, it doesn’t actually matter that much if you eat in front of your computer.

TS: In fact, I grab something to eat on the way back, and I often work from home, and I would eat it at the kitchen table. But I would spend more time running than I would eating.

The key word is 'savor,' something that certainly applies to food but not just to food. Are you savoring what you’re doing? In your case, are you savoring what you’re eating? It requires two things: It requires time, and it requires focus. You can’t focus if you’ve got your attention split four ways. It’s a contradiction in terms. We’ve sort of lost that whole quality of savoring, that we’re moving too fast to savor anything.

I’d like to come in and have lunch with you, by the way – but only if you’re cooking. I’d be happy to be the eater. Or here’s a thought: You could host a Take Back Your Lunch group at The Post and cook the lunch yourself for four or five people.

JY: Well, actually, my deputy editor, Bonnie Benwick, and I have joked that we could open a little sandwich café using the toaster oven in our kitchenette, and possibly make a little money. We’d have to force people to promise that they wouldn’t eat it at their desk, though.

TS: I’m a former journalist, so I can say this, but given the problems of newspaper journalism, it wouldn’t hurt to have a second income stream, either.

JY: Ouch.

By Joe Yonan  |  July 13, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cooking for One  | Tags: Joe Yonan  
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