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The case for eating lunch alone: It could help you be more productive at work

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Consider this validation for all the solo lunchers out there: The so-called "sad desk lunch" might not be such a bad thing, after all.

A recent Wall Street Journal story from leadership expert Marissa King highlights research suggesting workers may be better off spending their lunch break working or eating alone, rather than being roped into a team meal.

That was the takeaway from research from the Rottman School of Management, which analyzed how 103 employees spent their lunch each day for two weeks and asked them to rate their energy levels by the end of the day. Those who lunched alone without completing work were most relaxed, while workers who worked through their meal or chose to socialize during the break were slightly more fatigued. But by far the most energy-draining situation was when workers had to participate in a mandatory social lunch.

Researchers suggest this is bad news for companies that frown upon eating lunch alone or require (by way of expectation) socialization during breaks. That could be in the form of attending lunch-and-learn sessions, arranging frequent lunch meetings or having to sign up for networking lunches. Instead, both extroverts and introverts alike benefit most when they can manage their free time and participate, or opt out, as desired.

This isn't reason to work through lunch, though. Taking a true break from answering email to focus on food is a habit that's been linked to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity, according to a survey of 1,600 North American employees. The study also found those who took a lunch break every day were more likely to say they were effective and satisfied in their current job.

Overall, there's plenty of of evidence to back up the benefits of taking true breaks throughout the day. According to research, working in 90- to 120-minute sprints with a 20- to 30-minute break in between may be the sweet spot to maintaining focus and getting things done more efficiently.

Even some of the most important leaders in business see the value in taking some alone time not only to recharge, but also to set the tone for big strategic thinking.

Bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch suggests workers adopt the "protected hour" for improved productivity. She tells CNBC Make It that she was introduced to this concept while trying to schedule an interview with a well-respected CEO.

"One afternoon I called his office," she says, "only to have his assistant tell me he couldn't talk because it was his 'protected hour.'" When Welch and the CEO finally met, she learned he held his protected hour once a week, either alone or with a trusted advisor, to look at his calendar from 20,000 feet and assess"if he was spending his time with the right people, involved in the right activities, thinking about the right things and with enough of an eye to the future."

Welch says she's since harnessed the same productivity hack and has heard from many other CEOs who do the same.

"I know we're all so busy that the idea of sparing an hour just to ponder can seem impossible," she says. "But this hack has the power to save you days, weeks and even years of misplaced energy."

Bill Gates and Ray Dalio have said a few minutes of meditation a day boosts their creativity, decision-making and focus.

Other leaders prefer to spend their alone time in more active ways. Richard Branson, for example, credits daily exercise as his secret to success. An hour of tennis, kite-surfing and lifting weights each day helps him stay sharp and keep stress to a minimum.

While not all workers may not be able to fit a gym session into their day to step away, just a reflective lunch alone (even better if it involves a stroll outside) could be the key to better managing their time, work and mood.

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