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Take Back Your Lunch Hour

In this excerpt from Chapter 4: Writers, Take Back Your Lunch Hour from Áine Greaney’s Writer With a Day Job, you’ll learn: how to make your lunch hour work for you the most effective ways to organize your time at lunch how much you can really expect to get done in an hour

Lunchtime can be used to your advantage. First, if you’re an exempt (salaried and not entitled to overtime pay) employee, this is an hour in your day that you can use to get more writing done. The trick is to make sure, no matter how busy you are, to really take that hour. As our workplaces get busier, as our day job schedules grow more packed with tasks, deadlines, and onsite and inter-time-zone tele-meetings, more and more employees tell me that they’re lucky if they manage a mid-afternoon trip to the snack machine.

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I’m not a dietician. But listen to me when I say that this is downright unhealthy (read: brain fog, sugar imbalances, rapid weight gain, and perpetual grumpiness). In addition to the physical effects to your overall health, this kind of enforced or voluntary starvation will turn you into an embittered, disgruntled employee. And that’s not the attitude that benefits either your work or your writing career.

Think that working and fasting through your lunch hour will help you keep your job and score some brownie points? Even the most dim-witted boss knows that a hungry employee may look busy, but she’s actually sitting there fantasizing about a triple cheese-burger or … you guessed it … a big pan of luscious, chocolate brownies.

So let me play your mother here. Writers! Workers of the world! Whatever you actually use your lunchtime for get up, stand up, and take back your lunch hour! 

If you’re a nonexempt employee (hourly, entitled to overtime pay for working beyond your assigned, paid hours), it’s highly unlikely that your employer will let you skip your lunch hour. In most cases, this controverts the labor. 

Writers, Make Your Lunch Hour Work for You

As a writer, the traditional midday or mid-afternoon lunch hour can work for you in one of three ways:

(a) Trade the hour: If you have a relatively flexible work schedule, trade in this hour for a later start or an earlier quitting time. This gives you an extra hour for your writing—either at home at your writing desk or in a local café or library on the way home.

(b) Write on your lunch break: Like our friend John, use your lunchtime to produce new writing or to read and edit last night’s or this morning’s draft.

(c) Take a class, workshop, or Webinar: More and more downtown and suburban organizations (public libraries, YMCAs, writers coalitions, university extension programs) are catering to the busy, lunchtime crowd by offering short workshops, reading series, or writer-discussion groups. 

(d) Jog, walk, visit the company gym, or run errands:Use this midday hour to get in your daily exercise or to run errands. This will improve your mood and energy levels. And, by using your lunchtime wisely and efficiently, you leave the evening hours free for you.

Ding! Ding! It’s Lunch Time!

If at all possible, take your lunch hour off-site. By eating and writing in your workplace cafeteria, you leave yourself vulnerable to those come-join-us invitations. Or you’re too available for those quick, on-the-fly work questions or discussions. 

I eat six times per day or more. I’m hungry every two or three hours, or even more often than that. It’s just how my metabolism works. So most days, I’m on my third snack or mini meal by eleven a.m., and my next mini meal is not until about two p.m.— right in the middle of that mid-afternoon slump. So I rarely or never use my actual lunch hour as a mealtime.

You may not have this luxury or dietary preference. But if your lunch hour doubles as a writing hour and if it works for you, try this snacking-on-the-job routine. It frees you from standing at that deli counter or waiting for that waiter to bring you the daily special.

Lunchtime Writing: How much can I really write?

I knowsome teachers who surprise themselves by how much class prep or student papers they can grade during a midday free class period. Or, remember your own high school or college days? Remember how much homework you could complete during that a free period between classes—work that would take you twice that long at home? Or did you ever surprise yourself by how much work you accomplished at 37,000 feet, stuck in a cramped seat on an airplane?

When writing on your lunch hour, the key word is hour. There’s something really motivating about having a defined, limited time in which to complete a defined task. Also, when we effortlessly completed that homework during school day free periods, we were self-motivated by the fact that we were freeing ourselves up, buying ourselves some free time in the evenings.

Wherever you decide to spend your lunch hour, this timed writing approach can really work to your advantage. And it works best if you develop some kind of system, which includes knowing what you’re going to write and where.

What will I write or work on?
You probably wouldn’t want to eat an egg salad sandwich for lunch five days in a row, but I advise you to dedicate lunchtime to a specific, habitual writing task, such as writing the first draft, completing a journal entry, editing, or rewriting.

When I worked in one of those awful corporate tower buildings, I got a lot more accomplished when I knew that the minute that elevator hit the ground floor and pinged open, I was crossing that concourse to work on a specific task. Some weeks I dedicated to idea gathering and very rough, handwritten first drafts. For others, I made sure I had a printout completed and a pen in my pocket so I was ready to do some serious editing. 

Feel free to change your lunchtime plan from week to week. But before you log out or clock out for your lunch break, have a plan.

(1) Editing: If you’re going to use this time to read and mark up a previously written draft, get yourself on a schedule of saving, printing, and stapling. Really! It can be as simple as that. Then, the minute you unwrap your lunch, you’re already reading and reviewing that first line of your own writing. Better yet, develop a write-and-edit schedule which allows a lag time of twenty-four hours or more between writing and editing. For example, Tuesday’s lunch is spent editing Monday morning’s draft. Or Thursday’s lunch is always spent editing Wednesday morning’s draft. The more defined, predictable, and planned your lunchtime schedule is, the more you will get out of it.

New York author Stephanie Cowell (, worked as a production manager in the publications department of a nonprofit research organization, while penning five historical novels. Cowell says that she wrote “in my office during my downtime and on lunch hours.” She would take her printouts on the subway to work. In fact, she recalls one day when one of her colleagues stood watching the author as she walked down a New York City street “editing my manuscript as I went.”

(2) Writing: This hour can produce a fast and furious first draft. Again, before you reach that café or park bench, make sure you’ve got what you will need (writing idea or assignment, laptop, notebook, pen). Because once you’re out there, once you’ve left the service counter or the office or the assembly line, you can’t or won’t schlep back to the office.

(3) Character ideas and sketches: Stroll downtown or visit your workplace cafeteria or pop around the corner to any lunchtime café. Or take a walk through a nearby park. At lunchtime, especially in good weather, buttoned-up adults spill out of elevators and stores and corporate buildings like school kids let out on recess. In the cafés or at the street vendors’ food carts, watch and listen to how people order their food (that woman who barks her order while still gabbling to her friend on her cell phone). Watch how people actually eat (that burger gobbler), and what they eat (the fastidious salad picker). Look at what they’re wearing (the conformist, the rebel, the fashionista). Block out their chatter, switch the imaginary sound dial on “mute,” and just watch how these people interact with one another. 

I don’t know about you, but I find the socializing-colleagues syndrome as fascinating as watching any action-packed movie. I like to watch how these contrived friendships play out over a lunchtime salad or a fast-food meal. Often, it’s an assemblage of mismatched or reluctant people. Are those two at the end of the table really friends? Who’s the workplace heartthrob? Who’s the snitch? Who’s the boss? Is she a good or a bad boss? Despite the simpering smiles, do her colleagues actually like her? How do the women interact with the men?

The Guardian, Britain’s leading daily newspaper, published a 2010 series, “Your Rules for Writing,” in which the newspaper invited famous writers to submit their top ten “rules.” In her submission, internationally acclaimed mystery writer P.D. James offered this advice: “Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer—however happy, however tragic—is ever wasted.”

Gabriel Valjan is an award-winning short-story writer and a nurse at a busy metro hospital in greater Boston. In his author interview, he cites an interesting link between his nursing career and his writing. “Nurses are listeners and observers. So I’m observant of body language, particularly when what the person has said does not accord with his or her body positioning.” 

Valjan suggests an exercise for observant writers: “Watch two people in public talking to each other, examine their body language, and create the dialog. Is the person with her arms crossed listening or tolerating being spoken to?”

(4)Rewriting or inputting edits:Of all the writing chores, I find that inputting or typing edits on a previously marked-up page requires the least creative input or creative juices. If it’s hard for you to transition from your working self to your relaxed, lunchtime self, dedicate this time to inputting or typing in the edits that you have already made—that morning, or the night before. “It’s just typing,” I tell myself—although I often go away beyond my previously marked edits. But this is a task that I can undertake easily, even in a noisy cafeteria, and even when I’m tired or distracted.

(5) Reading through background research: Depending on your work schedule and demands, it may be hard for you to switch off your job, to switch from the day job you to the writer you. Then, allocate your lunch hour to simply reading—preferably reading the background research you will need for the piece you’re working on. For example, if you’re writing a personal essay on the experience of dropping your oldest son off at college, your personal essay will benefit from a larger view, a set of regional or nationwide statistics. Thanks to the Internet, and thanks to our many government or university-affiliated think tanks and offices and centers of research, statistical facts and figures are now at our fingertips. As you munch on the daily lunch special, read up on information that can be used in your writing.

About the Book

For more tips on building your writing life alongside your career, check out Writer With a Day Job by Áine Greaney.

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