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Simplifying the holiday season before the stress starts

Nov. 19, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Well, it's official: The holiday season is here. So stop stressing already.

You think we didn't see that little crinkle in your brow when you read that? It's amazing how those long lists of things you "need" to do can suck the holiday cheer right out of you, especially if you're already feeling like you're behind the eight ball.

Yes, there's a lot to get done between now and, well, first Thanksgiving, then Hanukkah, then Christmas, Kwanzaa and, finally, New Year's. Thank heavens you don't have to do everything -- just the things that matter. Of course, easier said than done.

We fully recognize that it is difficult to figure out what really matters when you're under the gun to do, do, do and buy, buy, buy. That's why it's important to take steps now to simplify things before November gets away from you.

Consider these 16 suggestions:

1. Take the time to reflect.

Momentum has a way of carrying the day. Deep down, hosting a big annual holiday party for neighbors and friends may not really be how you want to spend most of your energy and "free" time in December. But unless you take the time to reflect on the kind of holiday you want ahead of the rush and actively choose a new path, it's a safe bet that you will find yourself doing things the way they were "always done."

Ask yourself: What do I really want this season to be about? Write down the feelings. Project forward a dozen or more years and think about what memories you hope to have created. Write them down. With that in mind, go through your mental laundry list of holiday to-dos and identify which of them really matter. What do you need to take off your plate so you can truly be present and enjoy those important moments?

2. Talk to relatives and friends ahead of time about expectations.

You might be surprised to find that relatives and friends are just as eager to streamline things as you are -- or at least allow families to trade off on certain responsibilities so that the stress is more evenly distributed. But you are destined to remain in the dark unless you speak with them.

3. Delegate responsibility.

No, you don't have to do everything yourself. Allowing others to add their energy and flair to a task enriches the experience for everyone, whether it's gift-shopping or baking or doing dishes. After all, it's in those moments where two, three or even more people are up to their arms in something that memories are made. But it takes a little bit of organization to delegate effectively, so be sure to think ahead and know what tasks you can share with others.

4. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking.

Traditions, like cookie swaps, have a way of taking on a life of their own. What starts out as a love of baking, or making handmade gifts, or entertaining, or whatever, quickly becomes a tyranny when you make it an all-or-nothing proposition. You aren't letting anyone down if you mix in a few store-bought cookies with your own baked ones because you need more than four hours of sleep. Loved ones will not feel slighted if they each don't get something handmade; they understand that you have a lot going on. Guests will still feel special if you hire someone to help you cater the food or clean up. Don't paint yourself into a corner.

5. Know your limits.

How much can you afford to spend this year? Not how much do you wish you could spend. But how much do you actually have to spend -- without putting yourself in the red? What did you spend last year (assuming you kept track)? Before you do one iota of shopping, get clear on this number.

6. Organize your shopping list early.

Having an organized list makes holiday shopping easier, more pleasant and is also hands-down better for your wallet. Take some time in the next week and whip out a piece of paper, a notebook or open a document on your computer and just do a big brain dump. Who should be on your gift list this year? Consider family, friends, teachers, service providers, colleagues. Use a free printable like the holiday-shopping-list organizers at www.GetButtonedUp.com/tools or a free spreadsheet template like this one: http://bit.ly/UzB4dh.

7. Shop for groceries you can store in the cupboard or freezer for two or more weeks.

Shopping for nonperishable foods and foods that can be frozen early will streamline your shopping. Stock up on those basics now so you can concentrate on perishable foods a few days before the big days.

8. Make some desserts ahead of time and freeze.

Homemade cookies and pies are so nice to have, but actually making them can be a real chore when pressed for time. Rather than pull an all-nighter, make cookie dough a week or two early and freeze it, then take the dough out of the freezer and let it thaw in the refrigerator the night before using it. Likewise, assemble your pies a couple of weeks before and freeze them. Take them out the day before to thaw and bake.

9. Wrap Christmas presents as you buy them.

Staying up all night wrapping presents isn't a lot of fun. Wrap gifts as you buy them; this is fun and saves oodles of time. Just remember to mark who they are for as you wrap them. We are big fans of the free app Evernote for doing just that. Snap a picture of the wrapped gift with your phone, make a note of who the gift is for, and save it to Evernote. Then later, if you get mixed up, you have a visual record to turn to.

10. Simplify decorations.

Have you ever been to Colonial Williamsburg this time of year? If not, add it to your bucket list. The town is a living, breathing example of the breathtaking beauty of simple holiday decor. A few candles in windows, greens over doors, red ribbons and dried baby's breath is all it takes to truly transform a home. In addition to streamlining holiday decor, consider decorating just a few key spots rather than every room. It's less to fuss with.

11. Party less.

Just because you're invited doesn't mean you have to go. Commit to the gatherings that are really important to you and skip the rest.

12. Travel less.

While there is something to be said for making the effort to be with far-flung family and friends, if doing so is a significant burden, financially or emotionally, you may be better off seeing them via Skype.

13. Buy less.

Rather than fretting about buying every single friend, family member and colleague something, organize gift exchanges instead. It encourages thoughtful gift-giving.

14. Send out e-cards.

In this day of high-technology, many people are online. Send out e-cards instead of mailing holiday cards. This will save both time and money.

15. Give more.

Wait! Didn't we just say to buy less? Yes. By "give more," we mean give of yourself. Why? For one thing, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School recently released a groundbreaking study that found giving away your time in the service of others actually makes you significantly more productive. So right now, when you're feeling the pressure of time scarcity most acutely, is precisely the time to give some of it away. A great way to do that: Participate in the free November GetButtonedUp Challenge. We're all committed to doing one random act of kindness each day this month. To find out more, visit http://getbuttonedup.com/novemberchallenge.

16. Shop from your home first.

Re-gifting has negative connotations. But chances are, you have something at home that's gathering dust that would actually be perfect for someone you know. Before you hit stores, look around the house and see what treasures you already have to give.

A parting question: How do you simplify for the holidays?

The writers are co-founders of Buttoned Up, a company dedicated to helping stressed women get organized. Send ideas and questions to yourlife@getbuttonedup.com.

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