Until now, my favorite professional job was the very first one. Fresh out of graduation, I beat out four hundred applicants from across Europe to help run a service-based business within the travel industry, which was based in the French countryside.
If wine is the poetry of earth, then the vineyard I lived in was a pastoral ballad about peacefulness and beauty. The company’s office was located nearby in a pretty, bucolic village. The church bells refrain could be heard on the hour and adjacent to the building was a luscious park with a lively duckpond. Often, I had to pinch myself. It seemed that I was experiencing what I imagined semi-retirement felt like, and none of the unpleasantness that characterized some of my friends’ first job situations.
Lunchtime was the only real head scratcher. My French colleagues disappeared at noon leaving me to eat my homemade sandwich alone at my desk while looking over paperwork. Then, like the diligent employee I was raised as—with a gritty Anglo-Saxon mentality and working habits to match—fifteen minutes later I’d get back to the grindstone.
But for the next two hours, no one responded to my calls or emails. It took me six weeks to finally figure out what was going on. Between noon and 2pm, nobody worked, which meant neither could I.
Ditching my faster-harder-better-stronger attitude felt unnatural at first. Not being productive felt uncomfortable. But, when in France…
So I began taking a full hour for lunch and I discovered that everyone ate at the local restaurants in town, where a crowd of forty or so made for a lively, inclusive environment. For the equivalent of ten dollars each restaurant offered a five-course meal, perhaps a salad buffet, steak-frites and a half-bottle of wine plus dessert and coffee. Eating in fifteen minutes was impossible. Instead of multitasking, I’d slowly and deliberately digest my lunch, chat with a colleague or another diner, maybe read a book.
The second hour I learned was to refresh and revive. Walking around to the pond, feeding the ducks, reading or simply letting my mind drift became part of my afternoon routine. My inspirational and strategic thoughts typically emerged during this time, when my mind was free to deal with complex issues without being conscious of the clock.
OECD and IMF statistics* consistently show that while France averages 10% less hours of work per week compared to the UK, their GDP per capita is comparable. I can attest to the validity of these findings. The impact of the midday break on my workday was immediate and comprehensive. I’d come back to the office at 2pm feeling like it was 8am again. I was energized and refreshed, mentally clear to take on the afternoon. I was far more productive and efficient, too.
Managing time, space and energy while remaining productive on a sustainable basis is a common topic with my current senior executive and C-Suite coaching clients. In their time-starved and action-packed lives, this is especially relevant. Their roles require them to be a strategic thinker on an ongoing basis, not just during corporate retreats or around budget time.
Because of the topic’s prevalence, but given that a 2-hour lunch break is not culturally appropriate, I created a tool (called 3i) to help executives create the necessary space for ongoing strategic thinking. Clients consistently gain between four and eight hours a week (in some cases as much as 10!) – all while improving team efficiency, building a pipeline of talent and driving the overall performance of the organization.
There is a caveat, however. My clients must commit to use the time that they save thoughtfully and wisely instead of filling it with to-dos and tactical firefighting.
So, what would you do with an extra day (or half-day) a week?
Would you spend more time with clients or peers or competitors? Attend a trade show or learn about a new technology? Go home earlier? Maybe feed the ducks and let your mind drift? With more time, you may discover the place where inspiration comes from. And become a better leader in the process.
*IMF GDP per capita UK: 42,481, France: 42,314, OECD Hours worked per annum UK: 1676,