If you follow my personal account on Facebook, you know that, every Thursday, I take an extended work lunch at my local El Cholo restaurant. (El Cholo is a fantastic, authentic, historic, family-owned micro-chain of Mexican restaurants that exists only in the Los Angeles/Orange County area. Founded in 1923 and still run by the same family, you’ve gotta’ go if you’re in SoCal.)

I know many of you can’t leave work or drink during lunch, but stick with me here.

There’s a funny reason that it happens on Thursdays. But there are also several serious reasons. Among the silly: If you check in on social media, you can have the nachos for the price they were when they first went on the menu in the 50s. I love the original, cheese-n-chips version of nachos. (Putting everything you’d stick in a burrito on your nachos, thereby essentially making an open face tostada, is a relatively new invention.)

On the serious side, I get there right at the beginning of my “alertness trough” where executive function takes a dip, making working on content and other creative work–while sipping a margarita–ideal. It also gets me out of my home office, helping me to switch gears and set multiple behavioral cues for the projects I work on while there. Lastly, it provides a social outlet, one of many built into my work week, as I am well known and friends with the entire staff.

I’ll discuss all of these in more detail below, but I also need to add the very important:
It also provides a change in environment that I can associate with JW Robinson.

I’m not always JW there. Half the time I’m John. Specifically John the guy who also brings in his family on most Wednesdays (a kid’s meal is free for each adult entree ordered). I’m even that John for short bursts on Thursdays, although for most of my working lunch I will be JW, tapping away at my laptop or scribbling notes in a psychology journal.

This is not separate from the previous “serious” reasons I have a working lunch on Thursdays.

The “alertness trough” is a very real thing. (For more on this, please see any or all of the following–and there’s plenty more–articles at The Harvard Business Review, The Washington Post, Fast Company, or, especially the very good book by Daniel Pink, When. [note: the link to When is an affiliate link. I may get a cut if you order through here. {Thanks!}]) I tend to go to bed relatively early and get up fairly early, and my executive function takes a hard dive right around 11 or noon…just when El Cholo opens. By taking advantage of this knowledge, I can continue being productive by switching to tasks relying more on insight–a skill that peaks when executive functions falter–and also associating this productivity to thinking of myself as JW.

Changing environments and continuing to do a particular kind of work in those environments reinforces my ability to do them. My sense of self-efficacy–which is much more important for success than motivation—is increased prior to working on any given project because successfully handling those projects previously in this environment primes me for continued success…which, again, I can then attribute to JW and use to prime better performance in other environments.

I’ll be honest, as of this moment I’m not completely able to articulate how the social aspect connects to my JW-ness except to say that it is a further extension of the behaviors and triggers that surround the experience. I’m sure there’s more to it and when I better understand it, I’ll put it in another post.

Meanwhile, I know that many of you reading this looking for suggestions on improving your workday are thinking, “But I can’t change up my environment that easily at work!” or, “I definitely can’t have a margarita during work hours!”

I hear you.

There are plenty of ways to take advantage or your environment regardless of whether you work from home, at a shared space, a coffee shop, or from a cubicle. Especially the cubicle.

First, you may want to associate particular tools or items on your desk to particular tasks or projects. They don’t even have to be directly related to the task at hand. By continuing to do that task (or type of task) with those items on your desk, you will come to associate them with the mindset that gets them done. For example, clearing a bunch of unrelated items off your desk and then sticking a stapler next to your keyboard every time you work on filling in standard forms may help you to just get those forms done whenever you pull out that stapler. Conversely, maybe putting a particular book or stack of paper next to the monitor may help you when doing CAD modeling or some other design work. Who knows? Play with it.

Second, sometimes you just have to change the physical space to change your head space. If you can’t really leave the office every couple hours to shift mental gears or shake things up, can you use a conference room? The lunch room? Trade cubicles with someone else? Work in your manager’s office? (They may agree to it. You won’t know until you ask. Just make sure to emphasize that increased productivity on your part may make them look better!) How can you creatively address this?

Then, think of yourself with a pseudonym when you’re actually getting stuff done. The more you associate this “version” of you with getting things done, the more you can use that pseudonym as the stimulus to get things done when you’re in a new situation…and sometimes even when you’re stuck in an environment!

Going to El Cholo on Thursdays began as simply a way for me to stay productive and also sane. It has grown into a way for me to continue reinforcing a particular working habit and bring it back to other working environments. I hope you find your own ways to change up your environments and use them to develop productive habits. If you do, please share them in the comments!

UPDATED: Seriously, so soon after I published this I got an email from Trello with a link to their post on the same topic. Check it out here.

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