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Henley Leadership Group Blog

One Simple Way To Maintain Focus At Work


Previously published on Forbes.com 

Sometimes, being a good leader and building a happy culture is as simple as eating lunch. And yet, so many of us don’t do it.

Maybe you skip meals, eat a boxed lunch in a meeting or grab a quick bite (or chug Soylent) in the car or as you run to the next meeting. What you might not realize is that this habit of rushing through lunch can impact your health as well as your leadership.

Let’s talk about the health stuff first.

What happens to your body when you skip a meal?   

When you don’t fuel up properly, your blood sugar drops, which affects your ability to think straight. Your brain uses glucose to run efficiently, and if there is not enough glucose for the brain to use, your body won’t function at 100%. Low blood sugar also causes you to feel tired, irritable and confused – “hangry.”

Second, the body begins to increase production of cortisol, leaving you stressed. You may also notice that you are craving carbohydrates. In addition, skipping meals can cause weight gain as your metabolism slows down. When you don’t eat enough, or if you go a long time without eating, your body goes into survival mode. This causes you to eat more at your next meal than you might have otherwise (think standing in front of the fridge eating everything you can get your hands on), as your cells crave food. When this happens, we often go for unhealthy foods. All attempts at eating healthy go out the door.

What happens to your leadership when you skip a meal?

If you become tired, irritable and confused when you have a blood sugar drop, you won’t be able to offer rational, grounded leadership. You may get impatient, a bit snippy or downright angry. And this has a larger impact on trust and respect. Solid leaders maintain their composure. They eat lunch.

I am a smaller person with a pretty fast metabolism. I have to eat small meals frequently or I’ll pay a price. I used to skip breakfast, mostly because I don’t really love breakfast food, and, secondly, because I rarely feel hungry before 10:30 am. My rationale was that another cup of coffee would carry me through to lunch. Then I started getting feedback about my impatience and irritation with team members. I also felt critical, though I thought I was doing a decent enough job hiding it. I wasn’t. My judgments of others were coming across clearly. So, I made myself and others a promise that I would eat something for breakfast before 9 am. And it has made all the difference.

Companies know the value of lunch

Some companies are so convinced of the need for lunch that they provide it for their team members. Tech companies like Google, Dropbox, and Apple offer free lunches for employees that are in-house, gourmet and amazing. By creating beautiful cafeterias with ambiance, they give employees a chance to sit down together.

Maybe you don’t skip lunch, but you grab something and sit back down to work while you eat.  Yes, this will keep you from a big blood sugar drop, but you won’t break the trance.

Get up.  Take a real break.  Walk outside and interact with people. It will clear your head and refocus you before you go back into the deep work – which is an important thing to do if you’re doing high-level work.

When Facebook opened its new office in part of the Village at the San Antonio Center project in Mountain View, California, the community sent a clear message: It wants Facebook employees to be a part of the community, and that includes venturing out into the local area for lunch. Under Mountain View’s rules for the Village complex, meals within the offices can’t be subsidized by more than 50% on a regular basis. Facebook can fully subsidize employees if they go to restaurants that are open to the public.

Michael Kasperzak, a former Mountain View mayor who worked on the legislation, notes that the intent is “to make sure we didn’t have 400,000 square feet of office space with people that never left the building.”

In other words, the city is saying, “Come on out of your office and have lunch with all of us!” Employees are encouraged to get out of the corporate halls and breathe in a bit of fresh air. Maybe they’ll even gain some perspective that there is more to life than their job at Facebook.

You can’t run efficiently if your tank is low. Here are some tips for staying properly fueled:

1. Make a promise to yourself that you will eat something every day by 9:00 am and again at noon. It can be something small, like a handful of nuts or an energy bar. But you have to eat.

2. Once a week, eat lunch without doing anything else. Find a quiet place, put down your device and simply enjoy the privilege of having a great meal. Taste what you are eating; notice the experience.

3. Make a lunch date. You cannot skip a meal if you have already made plans with friends or family.

4. When it’s lunchtime, get up, walk outside, talk to at least one person to break the trance of your work and focus.  You’ll come back clearer and more refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of your day.