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Italians are productivity geniuses—here’s why

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Cerith Gardiner - published on 03/28/17

Fresh pasta with sun-kissed tomatoes and regular naps? That just might be the secret sauce.

If you’re reading this on your lunch break, chances are you’re biting into a limp ham sandwich while replying to an urgent email, or quickly surfing the net for that elusive vacation flight to take you away from the daily grind. And you’re not alone: a survey in 2014 revealed that fewer than half of its respondents took more than 30 minutes for lunch, and a total of 29 percent of those questioned said they worked during their lunch breaks. So lunch for many is not even a break … unless you live in Italy. Yes, remember that dream vacation you were just gazing at? You just might want to live there permanently after you finish this article.

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Working life in Italy takes on a much different rhythm from our own, or that of many of our other Western counterparts. The pausa pranzo, or Italian lunch break that we might think of as a siesta, offers the perfect opportunity to rest the mind and body and effectively recharge our batteries, and it lasts a few hours.

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Unfortunately this does mean that in some places of the country everything shuts down from early afternoon until late afternoon (approximately 1 to 4 p.m.), leaving tourists a little frustrated when that all-important souvenir is dying to be bought. But they soon adapt—tourists need lunch too, and who could resist a bowl of pasta topped with fresh Mediterranean sun-kissed tomatoes?

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It all sounds wonderful, but it’s only natural to ask if all these long lunches are detrimental to work productivity—just imagine telling your boss you are heading out for a two-and-a-half-hour lunch! But according to author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, humans have an ability to focus for a maximum of four hours at a time; then we need a break, and not just a 5-minute snack attack. Pang actually goes further, believing “the average office worker can achieve as much work in four focused hours a day as in eight.” Oh yes, a 20-hour week seems about right, but for now we’d be content with a decent lunch break!

So why aren’t we all lobbying for these long Roman-style lunches? Writer and consultant Jean Moncrieff blames our “busyness culture,” in which we’re all so busy being busy, complaining about being busy, and if we’re not being busy we’re looking for ways to be busy, that there is no time for lunch, let alone a long lunch. But what is so great about being endlessly busy? Harvard Business Review found that “the busy person is perceived as high status” so the busier we are the more important we seem to be.

Yet not all of us are bothered about social status. It could also be due to the plethora of mobile devices out there giving us 24-hour access to information and knowledge, tempting us back into the world of work or holiday-planning, even when we’re trying to watch our little ones at soccer practice. It is an issue that the French have addressed recently with its new law giving workers the right to disconnect, switch off, and prioritize family time. Let’s just hope this proliferates throughout the rest of the working world and time off work becomes exactly that: including during our lunch breaks. Until then we’ll have to make do with sitting at our desks, grabbing the occasional bite of Italian-style pizza in between phone calls … Buon appetito!

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