It’s so easy for me to be distracted by food. What does that have to do with my professional development or professional conduct at work? I’ve noticed that sometimes my focus on food at work events can distract me from the primary purpose of the event or meeting. And that can be a problem.

About a year ago, when I was new in my job, I went to an event where the guest list included many leaders in the county. There was beautiful food everywhere, including bacon-wrapped shrimp. How could I resist? I took a bite, savoring the deliciousness. It was really good. At that very moment, a key stakeholder came up to start a conversation. Rather than being able to greet her with a warm “hello,” I needed to finish chewing my tasty bite. She smiled at me and moved on to conversation with someone else.

Focus on the People Not the Food

In that instant, I realized I had made the food my focus rather than the people. This was not the outcome I intended. It was not a great way to make a first impression. I looked around the room and noticed that despite the luscious spread, few people were actually eating. They were engaged in conversation – networking intently – ignoring the food. I tucked away this mental note for further testing.

Since I go to a lot of work-related events with tempting food and drink, I’ve been paying more attention to this phenomenon. I’ve observed that the more seasoned professionals at networking events put their focus on the people. What a revelation!

Take Care of Basic Needs First

Now that I understand better how to approach food at work events I’m practicing some new behaviors for myself to help set me up for success. First of all, I try to always have a healthy snack in the fridge at work, in my purse or in the car. A handful of nuts or bit of yogurt is all it takes to bed down my hunger when I’m going to a networking event or heading into an important meeting before lunch.

When I take care of my hunger, it’s much easier for me to make an intentional choice about eating and engage energetically rather than being led by my stomach. I’m not perfect at this, but I’m getting better. The end of the work day is another hunger trap for me to be aware of. As my fuel runs low, so does my effectiveness, and perhaps my patience.

Feed My Brain

I’m a grown woman. I can have an awareness of my hunger and use mental tricks to help me keep my focus on the people around me or task at hand rather than my growling stomach. I also need to be hyper-aware of when I’m losing energy due to heavy use of the executive function part of my brain.

Glucose, a form of sugar, is the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. Because the brain is so rich in nerve cells, or neurons, it is the most energy-demanding organ, using one-half of all the sugar energy in the body.

Scott Edwards, Freelance Science Writer

After a meeting with intense thinking or after prolonged decision-making, my brain is crying out for glucose. If I don’t feed the beast, I’m likely to become a beast. As a leader, it’s also my job to be aware of the energy of the other people in the room. If we’ve been doing intensely creative or difficult brain work, everyone will need a mental break and a snack. Having healthy snacks available for these kinds of meetings helps set us up for success.

Kindness of a Granola Bar

And sometimes it is about the food. At our recent All Staff Conference I was super-hyped up – excitedly talking to staff and other attendees. My energy use was high throughout the morning, and I didn’t have time to eat. I was unprepared – no snack in my purse. Lunchtime brought the same use of energy and lack of time to eat. I felt my vigor waning and my brain slowing down. Glucose deficiency alert!

A kind soul witnessed my plight and handed me a granola bar. A few quick bites, and I felt my energy return. I was so grateful for this unexpected act of kindness and necessary infusion of calories.

I’ve learned that others can start their day without breakfast or walk past a tray of cupcakes with little trouble. For me, I need to be intentional about taking care of my hunger so I can make work events about the people rather than the food. This helps me focus on my purpose in the first place – building relationships, understanding our community, and being present. I’m more effective at all those three things when I don’t have pizza sauce dripping down my chin.

Advice from People Who Know Me

  • Don’t show up hungry
  • Don’t let yourself get too excited about eating
  • Don’t let yourself get too hungry

…even if it’s a dinner party and there is bacon-wrapped shrimp.

Recommended Reading

Sugar and the Brain, Edwards, Scott, from On the Brain, The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter, retrieved 10/29/2019. This article gives the brief basics on how glucose affects a human’s ability to think.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Wikipedia, retrieved 10/29/2019. Classic theory of the psychology of the importance of getting basic human needs met.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, Sapolsky, Robert M., 2017. I’ve recommended this book before. It’s an instant classic for students of the biology of human behavior.