Earlier this year, Reagan-era statesman George Shultz died. And amid the celebrations and reflections on his life and work, one of his defining routines resurfaced, what one New York Times writer calls the “Shultz hour.”
In productivity talk, this hour was Shultz’s version of prioritizing the important over the urgent. But, as you know, identifying certain tasks as priorities doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get time to work on them. The urgent tends to dominate and fragment our time.
That’s why, for one hour a day, Shultz literally locked himself away with only a pencil and paper, telling his secretary that only two people could interrupt him: his wife and the president of the United States. This was the only way he could lift himself out of the urgency of day-to-day government and focus on things that require unfragmented attention.
And urgency isn’t the only culprit. All sorts of distractions, from screens to chitchat, can derail important work. The cost is huge.
Research from Harvard University shows that American businesses lose an estimated $16 million per year from sick days, compared to a bank-breaking estimate of $307 million lost to distraction. Unfocused work, it seems, costs more than no work.
The Shultz hour taps into something Manoush Zomorodi, host of the podcast Note to Self and the author of the 2017 book Bored and Brilliant, has been documenting for a few years. In her book, Zomorodi talks about boredom as an essential phenomenon for, get this, productivity: “When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our loves and set future goals,” she writes.
Zomorodi’s research confirms what Shultz was doing for an hour per day. No doubt, the proliferation both of the internet and of hand-held devices has only made the chaos Shultz felt even more pronounced.
Christians have long considered things like solitude and meditation as life-giving practices. What’s becoming evident is a parallel insight that we become more useful as we set aside time with no other agenda than to think.
In an interview with GQ, Zomorodi called the mid-pandemic period the Great Reset. That’s because many of us, for the first time in a long time, had few obligations. We had a months-long Shultz hour.
We’re emerging now, and soon our work lives — in office, school, or home — may be something closer to their pre-pandemic pace. But our real progress seems to depend on our ability to remain really bored. Unless, of course, the president calls.