THE BLOG
06/28/2016 03:55 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2017

The Dalai Lama's Lesson In Minimalism

What does the Dalai Lama keep in his small red bag?

My favorite story about the Dalai Lama was from an article in The Globe and Mail in 2002. The Dalai Lama travels the world frequently, teaching people about Buddhism and the plight of the Tibetan people. A man without many possessions, he always carries a small red bag wherever he goes. According to the reporter at one event, someone in the audience asked the Dalai Lama what was in his bag.

Immediately, he opened it and began pulling out objects for all to see. A chocolate bar, a case for his eyeglasses, a toothbrush, Kleenex tissues, and then after a pause--a single candy, which he promptly unwrapped and popped into his mouth.

How much stuff do you carry with you when you travel? Is too much "stuff" taking away your time?

More Stuff, More Work

Most of my friends have second homes. Some are in New York, others at the Jersey shore, others have ski cabins in the Poconos. They are surprised that I don't have a vacation home. What they don't realize is that I've listened very carefully when they talk about their homes. Rarely do they talk about how much joy they are getting from them. But I definitely hear it when they tell me that they have to deal with the aftermath of a break-in, or that Hurricane Sandy put three feet of water in their first floor, or that they've rented it out and someone trashed the place.

A second home is just one example to show the truth that all objects come with a cost. The bigger the house, the more rooms that need to be cleaned. Electronic gadgets need to be set up, stored, Bluetooth-paired--and ultimately fixed! Pools need to be cleaned. Pets need to get walked, groomed, and taken to the vet. Boats need to be put in and taken out of the water. Each car needs an annual inspection, registration and insurance. Knickknacks need to be dusted.

The lesson isn't that all "things" are bad--I have some toys to drive and two cats. It's just that all things require time, and we should think twice before acquiring them. While we may not want to limit our possessions to only that which fits into one small red bag, we can probably take inspiration from the Dalai Lama who clearly doesn't need objects to feel happy.

Applying The Lesson To Business

The basic truth I learned from observing the Dalai Lama can be connected with another invaluable tenet of business--the Pareto principle (or the 80/20 rule).

In essence, Pareto states that 80% of results will come from just 20% of the action.

Of course, it doesn't always calculate to exactly 80 and 20, but you see the principle working in various business cases:

  • 20% of the sales reps generate 80% of total sales.
  • 20% of customers account for 80% of total profits.
  • 20% of the most reported software bugs cause 80% of software crashes.
  • 20% of patients account for 80% of healthcare spending.

The important takeaway is not to run around with a calculator and actually do the math, desperately trying to figure out 80% and 20% calculations in different areas of your job.

Rather, work to identify the bit in your job that isn't providing much of a return. I'm not talking about things you find relaxing or refreshing--you need those things too. Instead, look for the possessions or activities that over the years have crept into your home, office, and calendar that you no longer need. (Maybe it's a standing weekly meeting that's not really necessary, or another process that's simply a relic of the past.)

Then, you want to have a mindset of identifying the few things and activities that will give you outsized returns--and prioritize those. Make sure to:

  • Look for shortcuts.
  • Do the most important things exceptionally well, and the rest just "good enough" or not at all.
  • Develop your skills to be exceptional in a few targeted areas; don't try to master everything.

Realize that you can work less, stress less, and increase your happiness by figuring out the 20% of goals and activities that are most important to you.

Practically speaking, this requires a bit of thought and analysis. But as you find tasks that you can eliminate, you'll free up time not only for yourself, but for your others as well.

Don't thank me. Thank the Dalai Lama.