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Mastering the Inbox as a Spiritual Practice

Mastering the Inbox as a Spiritual Practice

Earlier today, my email inbox was overflowing like never before. I’m taking this month off (mostly), so I haven’t been checking and responding to email as I normally do. This led to a super full inbox!

When our inboxes are overflowing, we tend to feel some anxiety, and respond in one of a couple ways:

  1. We get overwhelmed and ignore it, allowing it to get even more overflowing, and getting more and more behind on replying to people.
  2. We reply as fast as we can, often a bit frantically, feeling pulled in a zillion directions, and our day becomes swamped in responding to everything.

Do either of these feel familiar? What you’ll notice is that neither of these is particularly helpful, and that they aren’t a joyful, meaningful way to relate to your inbox. You might also notice that how we relate to the inbox is how we relate to a lot of things in our lives.

So what’s another way? What if the inbox could become a spiritual practice, that deepens you into the experience of life?

Let’s explore.

The Spiritual Practice of the Email Inbox

If we think of working through your inbox as a spiritual practice, it transforms your relationship to the activity. Instead of this anxiety-inducing thing that you need to do to not be a crappy person … it becomes a place of exploration and growth.

So what do we mean by spiritual practice? Anything that feels expansive, that touches on a deeper, more meaningful level.

Some places to explore:

  • Could you find joy and wonder in the inbox, instead of it being a place of burden and stress?
  • Could you examine the fears that are having you turn away from each individual email, then breathe and work through each one?
  • Could you make each email a beautiful moment of contemplation, connection, curiosity, or love?
  • Could you practice finding transcendence in each moment of working in your inbox?

As you can see, there’s not just one way to do spiritual practice. These are just a handful of ideas, but you might find what it means for you. However you practice, you’ll be expanding into something different.

Mastering the Inbox as a Spiritual Practice

Inbox Mastery Practice

Let’s talk about the mechanics of working through your inbox. Let’s say you have a full inbox, overflowing like mine was.

To start, let’s move through it in a methodical fashion. I recommend going through your whole inbox in several passes:

  1. First pass: Go through all your emails quickly, deleting or archiving the ones that you don’t need to respond to. I call these “Level 1” emails —these are all emails that are spam, newsletters you don’t care about, notifications, etc. Get them out. I have keyboard shortcuts turned on for my Gmail, so I can go through the whole inbox in a minute, pressing “j” to go to the next email (if I want to keep an email in the inbox), or “e” to archive the email (if it’s a Level 1 email to remove from the inbox).
  2. Second pass: In this pass, you’re going to respond to every email that only needs a quick reply — I call these Level 2 emails. For me, this takes about 5-10 minutes. If an email only needs a reply of a paragraph or less, I reply to it immediately in this second pass. If an email needs more time (Level 3 emails), I skip over it. When I do these quick replies, I send the reply and archive the email to get it out.
  3. Third pass: If you’ve done the first two passes, what remains are Level 3 emails — things that are going to take a bit more time. These are things that will take a longer, more considered reply, or that have longer tasks in them that will require a bit of focus. So in this third pass, I like to devote about 30 minutes, a couple times a day usually. I will deal with each email with full focus — if it needs a longer reply, I’ll spend a little time giving it some consideration and then replying. If it contains a task, I’ll either do the task and then reply (and archive it from the inbox), or put it on my task list to do later. In this third pass, I rarely clear out the entire inbox, but do my best to tackle each email, and see where I’ve gotten in the 30 minutes.

You can do all three passes in one session that will last about 45 minutes — 2 minutes for the first pass, 5-10 minutes for the second pass, and 30 minutes for the third. Adjust these times based on how much time you have in the day. I like to do two sessions per day, one in the morning and one later in the day.

You probably won’t clear out your entire inbox in one day, but let what you do in each session be enough. If you work like this each day, there’s a decent chance you’ll clear most of the important emails in a week.

Practicing the Practice

If you take the section just above this one, and practice with Level 1-3 emails as I describe, you’ll probably get better at managing your inbox. But if you leave out the spiritual practice, it won’t change much about your experience.

The transformation will come when you actually make it a spiritual practice. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Set an intention before you start processing your inbox. It helps to have a reminder stuck next to your computer so you remember to be intentional. Breathe, and remember that intention. Let the intention be something more than “get my inbox to empty” or “catch up on everything.” Make it more expansive, like one of the ideas in the “Spiritual Practice” section above.
  2. When you go through the first pass, let it be a joyful letting go of clutter.
  3. When you go through the second pass, let it be a practice in trusting yourself with short and easy replies.
  4. In the third pass, you’ll face some resistance and overwhelm … let yourself feel these without turning away, if possible, and just be with the experience. See if you can find love and breath in the middle of it. And then find something more expansive as you give this email in front of you your entire devotion.
  5. Close by acknowledging yourself for any little progress you make, even if it’s only a moment of openness. This will encourage the spiritual practice — encouragement is really important.

Above all, let this be a practice of openness, rather than another place to beat yourself up.

What would it be like to take this one area of your life, and find a deeper, more transcendent experience?


Zen Habits is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness. My name is Leo Babauta. I live in Davis, California with my wife and six kids, where I eat vegan food, write, run, and read. Source

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