ARTICLE: A Little Planning Makes the Holidays a Breeze

Believe it or not, with Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s time to begin thinking and planning for the holidays! Will this year be a season of joy or a season of stress? The frustration of the season won’t be yours if you apply a little advanced planning and organization. Meal preparation, gift giving, and holiday cards don’t have to be frustrating and time-consuming tasks. Here are some suggestions and ideas to make these routines easier.

Meal Preparation

• Instead of an elaborate holiday party or dinner, fix finger-foods and invite guests to drop by for an informal buffet, open house, or a dessert get-together. 
• If a guest offers to bring something, let them! Ask them to bring “their specialty,” and you’ll be thrilled with the sumptuous goodies that appear. 
• When your guests offer to help cook and clean up at the end of the party, don’t play the martyr. You’ll end up alone in the kitchen wishing you were part of the talk and laughter. Accept any offers gladly. The kitchen is a great place to gather and talk while the dishes are being washed and put away. 
• Or, leave the dishes and shut the door until everyone leaves. Enjoy yourself!
• Create a new tradition—go to a nice restaurant for Christmas dinner! 

Gift Giving

Most Americans don’t have the cash or the time to purchase gifts for everyone on their list. How many times have you charged expensive items and spent five months paying for them? See if you can break tradition this year by drawing names or just sending cards. Tell the people you’re not buying for that you’ve pared down your gift list out of necessity and ask them not to buy for you as well. 

For the gifts you must purchase:

• Reduce the time you spend at the mall and the post office. Make use of catalogues, which will gift-wrap and mail the present for you. Buy gourmet gifts from a bakery or specialty store to have on hand when you attend parties—nuts, jams, teas, dried fruits, and candies make excellent gifts—and they don’t require a lot of shopping time. Wrap extras for a guest who shows up unexpectedly and gives you a gift. Send a hard-to-buy-for individual a gift certificate from a nice restaurant or tickets to the theater or special event. Teens especially love cash so they can purchase what they want (which saves you time). Also, order your stamps by phone instead of standing in line.

• Flowers and blooming plants make welcome gifts—especially for people who don’t want more clutter in their lives—because they have a limited life span. Flowers are like a visiting relative—they come in, they are enjoyed for a short time, and they leave.

• Make your gift list. For items you still need to buy, call the stores for availability so you don’t waste time running from store to store. Then plan your shopping trips, noting the person, item, and the store. Try to know exactly what you’re buying before you go. Don’t wander up and down the aisles hoping something will jump out at you. Get started early and avoid the last-minute crush.

• Once you’ve purchased your presents, don’t wait until the last minute to wrap them. You’ll end up tired and blurry-eyed from wrapping 50 gifts until 2:00 a.m. the night before Christmas. Set up a wrapping station in a utility room, corner, basement, or closet. Wrap gifts as you purchase them. Keep rolls of ribbon organized on a paper towel rack hanging on the wall, and put up pegs or hooks to hang tape and scissors. Put wrap on a card-table or stand it up in a tall wastebasket. Purchase a gift-wrap organizer for flat sheets and nametags (Current has a nice one). Keep the wrapping station set up throughout the year, if possible.

• Practice the “one-in, one-out” principle when you receive gifts. If you get a new sweater, give away one you never wear. Every year, encourage your children to go through their toys and give away those they have outgrown. That way, you make room for the new toys and teach them to give to children who are less fortunate. Toss or repair any broken toys.

• Give yourself the gift of time. How about purchasing a few months of housekeeping instead of clothes? Purchase a gift certificate to a restaurant so you don’t have to cook. Have the veterinarian groom your dog instead of doing it yourself, being soaked, and making a mess. Buy a book on tape to listen to in the car on the way to work. Purchase a cell phone and eliminate phone tag by forwarding your calls when you leave the office. Have your groceries delivered once a week for a month (less than the cost of a blouse). Hire a teenager to do the major cleaning required before houseguests arrive.

Holiday Cards

If you’re really serious about saving time, get tough—don’t send cards to people who don’t consistently send them to you. Cards are not an important tradition for everyone. If someone hasn’t thought about you enough to send you a card, that person is probably not watching the mailbox for yours. Don’t be offended, but be serious about your time. Are you the only one working to maintain a friendship once a year?

• The best tactic for sending greeting cards is to plan the year before. When you receive cards, tear off the return address labels, and tape them to a piece of paper. Put the sheets in a file marked “holiday card list,” and that will be your card list for next year. If you use a Rolodex or address book, put a small red check or mark next to those that sent you a card. At the same time, you can add any new names and update your information. Next year, you simply flip through your list and address a card for people who have a check by their name. Better yet, add all your names to a database with a field called “card.” Put a “Y” in this field when you receive a card. Then instead of hand-addressing the envelopes, run a report for the individuals whose “card” field equals “Y,” and print self-stick labels for those records.

• Some people write once a year at Christmas to “catch-up.” If you write your cards by hand, you end up repeating the same message to every person. Instead, design a newsletter from your entire family. I’ve done a holiday newsletter for many years. Buy special colored paper with a pretty border and copy your newsletter onto it.

• Many people take one look at that mound of Christmas cards and can suddenly think of three or four other things that require their immediate attention. We love getting cards but hate the prospect of doing ours. So we procrastinate until December 22 and pull another 2:00 a.m. shift to get them in the mail by Christmas. So, I look at my cards as a process. Breaking the project down into smaller pieces makes it seem more manageable. You can even begin now! The first thing I do is create the labels. Second, I stick them on the envelopes with a return address label and stamp. Next, I write the family newsletter and get it copied onto the special paper. Finally, I set up an assembly line: (a) add a salutation to the card such as “Dearest X Family,” (b) sign our names, (c) enclose the newsletter and a picture, and (d) seal the envelope with a sticker. No licking for me! If you prefer to hand-write your cards, the trick is to write five each day, starting the day after Thanksgiving. Take some with you wherever you go, in case you find some free time: at the doctor’s office, waiting for a meeting to begin, or picking your child up from a lesson.

Finding Time

Choose your true priorities and take shortcuts where it really doesn’t matter: buy cookies instead of baking them or barter a task you don’t like for one you do. I know two women who trade chores at holiday time. One hates to bake; the other hates to do crafts. So one woman decorates the other’s home and wraps her presents beautifully; the other does the meal preparation and holiday baking for the other! Cut out as many social engagements as possible if you want more family time—you can’t go to a school musical when it’s more convenient. Kids appreciate happy and relaxed parents more than perfect decorations.

Start now and get some of these details out of the way! By the time next month rolls around, you will have more time to enjoy your holidays. You can spend time catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a while, putting the tree up and sitting around the fire with your family, and giving yourself some extra time to reflect on the past year and enjoy the gifts of the season. With a little advance planning and streamlining, you really will have the time to make your holiday season jolly and hassle-free.

© 2001 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at