What does a blank page represent to you: a sense of freedom and opportunity, or the fearful unknown? As I sat in a hotel room contemplating a whole hour spent alone with nothing but a biro and an A3 sketch pad to entertain me, it felt like a mixture of both. The reason for this activity, which I began during a holiday to Gran Canaria with my best friend, was a challenge called Shultz Hour. For the uninitiated, the practice is a weekly hour spent alone in a room with just a pen and paper. There are no prescriptive tasks – you just sit there, with no other distractions (that means no screens allowed!) and write or doodle whatever comes up.
It’s named after the late former US secretary George Shultz, who claimed in a 2017 New Yorker interview that his strategising ability was underpinned by this habit, which allowed him to “focus on the larger questions” rather than “moment-to-moment tactical issues”. Given that this man is credited with helping to end the Cold War – through his innovative thinking and advice to then-president Ronald Reagan – it’s worth listening to. My motivation was considerably more personal. Like many people in their early thirties (I’m 31), I’m finding myself at something of a life crossroads. While my friends have been settling down and having babies, I’ve spent most the past year travelling: exercising the freedom of my single, freelance lifestyle. It was heaven – until I found myself crashing back down to earth.
Six weeks ago, I became overwhelmed by the prospect of setting up more stable roots back in London: navigating friendships while at different life stages, taking the next steps in my freelance journalism career, while tackling the questions of how I’d want a future relationship and family to look. Life felt like a blank sheet of paper – and yet, I was feeling overwhelmed rather than excited about it. I was acting in a way that was reactive: prioritising immediate deadlines over considering a longer career timeline, and scrolling through “Just engaged” carousel posts on Instagram rather than thinking about the kind of future partner I might want.
Then I came across social psychologist Cassie Holmes’ book Happier Hour: How to Spend Your Time for a Better, More Meaningful Life, which recommends Shultz Hour as a means of carrying out some “quiet reflection”. I’m no stranger to being alone with my thoughts – I meditate daily, journal regularly, and I even published a book, Alonement, about spending time solo. But could this new practice be the key to gaining more proactive control over my life as a whole – focusing on the larger picture, rather than the daily minutiae? I decided it was worth a shot.
The first week I did it, I was feeling particularly relaxed. It was during the aforementioned holiday, which I’d taken with my best friend to get some early spring sunshine. From this grounded state, I felt eager for the mental stimulation of a new challenge. The first thing I noticed was how freeing it was to face a large blank sheet of paper, rather than the narrow-lined pages of my journal. My writing – usually cramped, messy and illegible, especially if I’m in a negative thought pattern – became much larger. I found myself taking up space, sometimes writing in capitals or larger font, and with that came a sense of confidence. I began jotting down random thoughts about the weather and last night’s dinner, but soon moved intuitively into brainstorming creative ideas for my email newsletter.
I also found myself doodling – which I almost never do, identifying as a wordsmith with limited artistic ability. I added little annotations to my musings: for instance, next to the phrase ‘taking the leap’ I drew the stick figure jumping from one cliff to the next. My mood felt fun and playful, compared to the more serious, pensive state I usually find myself in while journaling. While the first minutes were more stilted, the hour went quickly – and I felt a sense of creative pride surveying the page as my timer went off.
The next week followed in a similar vein, particularly as I was still in a playful, relaxed mood post holiday. Although as before I had no parameters for what to write about, I surprised myself by being able to direct my own activity quickly – creating a summer bucket list of things I’d like to make time for around London. I then moved into some of my journaling habits, writing a gratitude list for that day, then this year so far.
I hit something of a dip for the next couple of weeks, during a period where I was experiencing stress in different areas of my life, including a romantic disappointment followed by a couple of professional set-backs, while I had several deadlines later in the week. While my first Shultz Hour experiences had been positive, I noticed myself procrastinating the task for these occasions. I’d assigned myself a free Tuesday evening to settle into the task, but sabotaged myself by falling down an Instagram rabbit hole, which I realised was due to a sense of anxiety at carrying out the task. While I decompressed by writing my thoughts down (moving from short phrases to longer, reflective sentences), I longed for my journaling practice, which gives me a more structured, linear way of moving past my feelings. The nature of writing down my thoughts on a blank piece of paper felt too much like the inside of my head: disconnected, scattered. The hour stretched on longer than I would have liked – and the following week was even worse. I finished feeling deflated, and escaped my disappointment by binge-watching Ted Lasso.
For the final session, I resolved to put myself in a positive mindset before I began. I journaled the night before, and I committed myself to the task on a Thursday evening after a productive, ordered week spent meeting my work commitments and socialising with close friends. While I’d returned from a trip to Lisbon earlier that week, I had put away my laundry and eaten a healthy, home-cooked dinner before beginning. From that state of mind, the Shultz Hour felt as it should: creative. I found myself resorting to my initial motivations for the task – planning my life and gaining some control over my time going forward. My creative solution this time around was to write down headings like ‘FRIENDSHIP’, ‘PHYSICAL HEALTH’ and ‘CAREER’ on the page before listing goals for the months going forward. The ideas were following – and I ended up sticking that piece of paper in front of my desk as a sort of mood board to inspire the next few weeks.
What I’ve realised, through this exercise, is that the blank page very much reflects the state of your mind going into it. This is not a practice like meditation and journaling, which can ground you from an initial state of anxiety. If you are feeling burned out when you approach Shultz Hour, then it won’t work any magic. After all, the creative ‘answers’ it can render come from you – so if you’re not in a mental health space to provide them, then it can quite easily lead to a sense of shame. However, during the weeks I was feeling up to the task, it was a totally different story – I was amazed at the creative inspiration it gave me for both my writing and my leisure activities, and there was a real confidence of knowing I had all that inside me.
Going forward, I won’t hold myself to doing this task once a week (not unless the White House comes calling…), having concluded that it’s not a healthy thing to force myself to do when my mental health isn’t up to it. However, when I’m in a positive state of mind, this is a brilliant way to supplement my creative thinking. It’s amazing to know I can come back to Shultz Hour on a monthly basis, to tackle specific areas of my life I want to brainstorm about, and impress myself with what I come up with.
Francesca Specter is a London-based writer and podcaster. You can follow her work by signing up to her newsletter, while she’s on Instagram at @ChezSpecter.
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