piles, files and dustbins

In my former incarnation as a lawyer the partner who oversaw my work had piles. No, not like that, he had piles of files. He had one pile of files on the left hand side of his desk that he had to deal with and a pile on the right hand side of the desk of files he had dealt with. In his mind it was a clear and simple system. But to anyone coming into the office it looked chaotic because even though files moved (via the space in front of him) from one pile to the other to the untrained eye it looked as if the piles never moved. And there were many occasions when his long-suffering secretary would have to rummage through the piles when the need of a file became more urgent.

paperworkI developed my own system based on that approach, but I resolved to keep the piles small and deal with them as soon as possible. I think that approach has stayed with me. Today I try to have regular ‘dustbin days’.

The idea of a dustbin day was that were would be scheduled days when I cleared out my inbox; desktop and rubbish bin. And in those days these things were real, tangible things not virtual places on a computer! The purpose of having these regularly is to make sure that you don’t overlook things that find themselves at the bottom of a pile, to make sure you don’t keep putting off that awkward visit or phone call, and to make sure that you keep yourself (relatively) organised. It also enables you to get rid of the clutter and unnecessary things that take up space in your office and in your mind: there is something cathartic about throwing away something you no longer need.

I still try to have dustbin days. I like the opportunity to go through things that have been gathering literal or metaphorical dust and dealing with them. I like the feeling of having a single figure number of emails inbox (and even, occasionally, having an empty inbox!). I like being able to see the top of my desk. I like having a tidy space to work in. And I like the corresponding tidying that takes place in my mind as I deal with things.

And I need to have even more regular spiritual dustbin days. On the advice of my Spiritual Director (he’s perhaps a bit like Yoda in his wisdom and perception but not as small or green; he speaks conventionally and is not so good with a light-sabre) I have been trying to finish each day with a spiritual exercise. It goes something like this:

I ask myself two questions.

How have people and experiences today have energised, blessed and encouraged me and where have I sensed God at work in them?

How have I been drained and diminished by people and experiences today and where do I need God to see God at work at work in them?

I then pause and pray for God’s Spirit to give me the grace and wisdom to respond appropriately to both answers, and I then leave those things with God.

It has been helpful to me in reflecting on my day. It has been helpful as a sort of spiritual dustbin day to deal with emotions and thoughts that are hanging around from the day. And it is helpful to leave them with God so I don’t have to have my mind trying to think about them and process them when I want it to let me go to sleep.

If good administration is important, how much more important is good soul-administration?

Be blessed, be a blessing.


a tidy desk is a sign of…

It’s been said that “a tidy desk is a sign of a tidy mind”. Or how about, “A tidy desk is a sign of a full desk drawer.”

But Albert Einstein apparently said that, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

paperworkThis week, among other things, I am going to tidy my desk (make of that what you will!). I have narrowed down my options to two viable alternatives based on the above (note ‘tidy’ not ’empty’!):

Alternative the first – scoop up all paperwork, stray documents, empty mugs and items that don’t currently have a home and deposit them in an empty drawer / cupboard.

Alternative the second – look through all of the papers on the desk and either respond, file or discard, take any empty mugs to the kitchen and clean them and find a home for any homeless items.

Both alternatives will result in me having a tidy desk.

Alternative the first is quicker and perhaps even in the short term more satisfying. But it will leave items still to be dealt with (and now more difficult to find / remember) and may result in the growth of new life forms if the mugs remain uncleaned for a long period of time, or at best the coffee dregs at the bottom of the mugs will have welded itself to the mug and be difficult to remove.

Alternative the second may take a bit more effort. It may take a bit more time. But at the end the tidy desk will not simply be a space free of clutter it will also be a reminder to me that I have dealt with everything.

How often in life do we deal with problems, difficulties, letting other people down, unforgiveness and other ‘clutter’ by scooping it up and lobbing it in an empty drawer or cupboard? We can give the impression that everything is fine and lovely but those things remain undealt with. They will not go away if we ignore them and indeed they can get worse so that we have a bigger issue to deal with when we finally have to deal with them.

It’s wise to try to sort out problems in our relationships with others and with God sooner rather than later. Occasional ‘spring cleans’ will take a lot longer and be harder work for us that regular ‘housekeeping’ and a relationship is always healthier and closer if there is not ‘stuff’ between you.

If you read Psalm 32 you will read about the difference it makes to us when we hide the stuff we really need to deal with and the contrast with how it feels when we have sought forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing


paper, paper everywhere

One of the things I promised myself is that during my sabbatical leave I would sort out my desk. There are piles of papers that need filing, binning or shredding. There are bits and pieces that need to go back in their proper places. Somewhere there are books still to be read. There are loads of bits of paper I have acquired relating to my sabbatical studies. And there’s what I would call ‘assorted debris’. It accumulates because either I don’t have the time to deal with it, or because it’s something I would rather not deal with at the moment.

Today’s the day. I am going to deal with the desk. It is long overdue. But once it’s sorted, how do I prevent it from re-acquiring the clutter? There are several answers to this. One is to put all the new clutter and paperwork in another place. That way the desk remains visibly tidy and I can work at it. But the clutter has simply been relocated.

Another is to have what our pastoral studies tutor called ‘dustbin days’. Once a month he recommended to us trainee Ministers that we have a day set aside to do all the adminny stuff we have been putting off. That way the piles of papers don’t reach the ceiling and the chances of overlooking something important are diminished. It’s helpful advice and I will include it in my list of things to get around to… if I can find it on my desk.

A third approach is to deal with the items as they arrive and sort them as they are completed. It’s by far the best approach. But it requires time and discipline. And, if I am honest, it may require the help of someone else. I was at my most administratively efficient when I worked as a litigation lawyer and had my own secretary. I was efficient because my secretary was efficient. I had to keep up with her. Yes, she would deal with things like filing but I had to ensure that I was able to lay my hands on papers I needed to use, so I also had to keep a tidy desk and have a system where I knew where I had put everything.

When I worked in the office of the Baptist Union of Great Britain I had a three-tier filing tray. I called it my ‘hokey cokey filing system’: I labelled one tray ‘in’ (for letters and so on that were arriving on my desk). I labelled one tray ‘out’ (for letters and so on that were leaving my desk). And, yes, I had one that was labelled ‘shake it all about’ which was for letters and so on that needed to stay on my desk while I dealt with them. I had to be disciplined to keep ‘out’ and ‘shake it all about’ relatively empty because they were underneath others so they had limited capacity.

I guess we apply the same sort of approaches to our lives. There are things we would rather not deal with and keep putting off, or have become ‘too busy’ to deal with. Yet they lie around, cluttering up our lives. That apology we need to offer or accept. That forgiveness we need to ask for. That persistent sin that we keep falling into.

On Sundays I think many of us operate on the ‘relocation’ model. We put aside all those things and present ourselves at church looking like we have everything in order. But when we get home it’s still there.

Some of us operate ‘dustbin days’. Every so often we reach a moment where we feel we have to deal with these things and make an effort to sort them out (usually starting on our knees asking God for his forgiveness and help). But the debris builds up again.

The best approach is to deal with stuff as it arrives in our lives. That way it does not have time to fester (like the three-week-old sandwich underneath a pile of unopened letters)* and we can keep short accounts with God and with others, which is a healthier way of living.

And perhaps the ‘hokey cokey’ is not a bad approach. Some things in our life can be dealt with quickly: ‘in’ and ‘out’. But some needs to be shaken around a bit, we need to dip into it and out of it, we need to play with it and discover what approach is best to deal with it. I suspect Jesus would quite like to join us in putting our right leg in, our right leg out…

And by the way, ‘administration’ is listed by Paul as a spiritual gift. I think I need to pray for it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A young minister had just started in a church and felt really excited. He sat in his study and there was a knock at the door. The Minister was thrilled to have a visitor, but wanted to appear busy.

He picked up the phone just as the man came in. “Yes, that’s right. I can see you later today, but I only have half an hour. Yes, I’ll expect you ten past two. Alright. No later. I’m a very busy man.”

He hung up and turned to the man waiting. “May I help you?”

“No,” said the man, “I just came in to install the phone.”