Inside: These proven hacks are like a vaccine against holiday stress so you enjoy Christmas and the winter season to the fullest.
Every year on the morning after Thanksgiving, we pick out a Christmas tree.
And before you get the wrong idea: We don’t drive out to the country and pull it up by the roots, National Lampoon style.
We get our tree at a grocery store.
It’s cheap, it comes with a mini tabletop tree for our girls to decorate, and nobody gets frostbite.
This year though, the temperature was in the mid-40s with buckets pouring from the sky.
But a tradition is a tradition. So we bundled up our toddler Bailey and 5-month-old Charlie – it wasn’t our week with 7-year-old Abby – and we set out on a completely miserable morning.
Last year, Bailey was too young to understand any of the Christmas hullabaloo, but at two-and-a-half this year it’s a different story.
We parked at the store, and Ty reached to the backseat for the umbrella.
I checked my floorboard.
Our eyes met, and we both realized it at the same time.
At home, we’d cleared out the trunk to fit the tree and forgot to stick the umbrella somewhere else in the car.
I wondered: How bad would it be to just pull up alongside the tree tent and have them load one, sight unseen?
“Maybe we can come back a little later,” Ty suggested.
From the backseat in the most angelic voice you could imagine, Bailey repeated: “Come back later?”
I smiled at Ty, and we knew our fate was sealed. We couldn’t take this away from her.
Bonus: Download this free planner template to keep the holiday stress at bay.
Not What We Bargained For
I loaded the baby in my trusty Ergo as fast as possible and threw the attached cover over her head while Ty hurried to get Bailey out of her seat, then we ran for cover under the Christmas tree tent.
I’d hunched my head over baby Charlie, so she wasn’t wet. But I was soaked. The cold wind cut right through to my bones.
Then I looked down at Bailey standing beside me, and I’ve never seen her eyes that big before.
And that smile! I felt a tug at the corners of my mouth and looked around me.
This wasn’t even an impressive display of trees. It was a grocery store. Ninety-five percent of the trees were still bundled up.
Plus, did I mention? Wet. Cold. And also in case I forgot to explain: wet.
“How about that one?” Ty pointed and asked Bailey.
“Yeah!” she yelled while clapping and jumping up and down.
I looked where he was pointing. A little scrawny.
But that smile. Pure joy from the simple idea of bringing a little of the outside into our home.
I caught Ty’s eye and smirked. “She’s pretty excited about this.”
What Happened to This Cranky Mom
I brushed the wet hair off my face and looked around the tent for a fuller tree.
When I spied one, I reached down for Bailey’s hand. My hand caught part of her jacket, and I realized she must be soaked, too.
I led her to another tree. “This one looks a little bigger. How about this?”
And again: “Yeah!” Clapping. Jumping.
I shook my head and chuckled. “Too much cuteness.”
“Yep,” Ty said.
The tent attendant started to work on bundling up our tree for the road. “Don’t forget your tabletop tree,” he reminded us.
“Oh yeah,” I said. Then to Bailey: “Are you ready to pick out the tree for your room with Abby?”
Her jaw dropped until her mouth made a perfect circle. “For my room?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Right now?” she asked.
“Right now,” I said.
And oh goodness. That smile.
I couldn’t help it. I smiled too.
Wet, cold, and smiling like a toddler under a Christmas tree tent.
A Lesson From My Toddler
When the holiday stress threatens to overwhelm me this year, I will remember that day.
The bliss on my toddler’s face on an absolutely miserable day. Pure happiness because of the simple joys this season brings.
A tree? Right now? For me?
In that moment, she didn’t even realize she’d get to string lights on the tree or hang ornaments or shoo the cats away from drinking the tree water.
I can’t even imagine her face when she sees the first present under the tree.
Take joy in the small pleasures that come your way. That’s what I learned from my toddler this holiday season.
And also: Always pack an umbrella.
7 Ways to Keep Holiday Stress in Check
Bailey inspired me to put together a toolbox to keep my perspective screwed on straight this year.
When I start to worry that we’re not doing enough fun holiday activities with the girls, or that we haven’t given enough to our loved ones, or that we’ve stretched our budget too thin – I’ll be prepared.
Because of the look on Bailey’s face that day and also because I’m ready with these tools for managing holiday stress. These tips are like a vaccine against Christmas stress.
I even designed myself a Christmas planner to keep these tricks top of mind every day throughout December. If that sounds good to you too, be sure to grab the free printable template page at the end of this post.
1. Empty the Snow Globe That Is Your Head
I used to write to-do lists on every scrap of paper I could find – in my purse, on the kitchen counter, tucked inside books I’d started reading and lost interest in. Any piece of paper was fair game, from bill envelopes to the leftover construction paper scraps from my kids’ art projects.
But this kind of disjointed to-do list is actually a major source of stress. From the book Getting Things Done:
“The short-term memory part of your mind – the part that tends to hold all of the incomplete, undecided, and unorganized “stuff” – functions much like RAM on a personal computer. Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there’s limited capacity; there’s only so much “stuff” you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload…
This produces an all-pervasive stress factor whose source can’t be pinpointed.
Even if you’ve already decided on the next step you’ll take to resolve a problem, your mind can’t let go until and unless you write yourself a reminder in a place it knows you will, without fail, look.”
In other words, the neverending to-do list swirling in your head is like a snow globe that never settles back down. Don’t let that get in the way of enjoying the holiday season with your family.
Here’s the fix: Have one place where you get all those to-dos out of your head. I’m personally smitten with Evernote.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Sit down with Evernote or your list-keeper of choice.
- Write down everything you need to get done.
If you think of something an hour later, add it to the list. If you’re lying in bed and can’t sleep because you’re thinking about how you need to call Aunt Susan to politely explain the kids are too old for her annual present of footie pajamas, add it to the list so you can sleep!
(By the way, this is one reason I love Evernote – I can open it on my phone or any computer, and my lists all stay in sync.)
2. Honor the Magic of Three
The Holy Trinity. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The Santa Clause trilogy.
Three really is a magic number, and that’s why every day you’ll pick three MITs.
MIT = Most Important Task.
You de-snow-globed your head to make a master to-do list, but it’s probably kind of long and overwhelming. The solution? MITs.
Here’s how: Look at your master list, and pick three tasks that are most important to get done today. Just three.
Pick the things that MUST happen today. If you finish these MITs, you will consider the day a success.
For example, here are my MITs from Monday:
- Order books for the girls’ Christmas presents.
- Design a free printable planner page to go along with this post.
- Reserve dog boarding for our holiday travel.
Notice how I listed work and personal items together. Your 3 MITs should be for your whole day. Avoid making one MIT list for work and one for home because you’ll lose focus on the most important things that must happen today – plus you’ll probably procrastinate both lists.
You can always do more than your MITs, but those should happen first. Before you check email or shop online for stocking stuffers and get lost down a rabbit hole of peppermint truffles and gingerbread lip balm – do your MITs.
3. Catch This Word
I can hear you right now.
“But…just three? THREE?!? I should bake cookies for neighbor presents. I should deep-clean the house before family visits. I should fill out the Advent calendar with super fun family activities. I should…”
First of all, I already gotcha covered on the Advent calendar front. (Download my free holiday activity cards, and you’re DONE.)
So eliminate “should” from your vocabulary during the holiday season.
Here’s the problem with “should”ing: Research on time perceptions shows that we typically “imagine that we’ll be less busy in the future.” And because of that, we take on more and more tasks and projects thinking we’ll have time “later.” But we’re wrong. We’re just as busy “later” as we are right now – if not moreso.
Stop telling yourself you’ll have more time later. It’s a lie. For all those things you think you’ll get to “one day,” you probably won’t. And every time you think of it and how you haven’t done it yet, you’ll be disappointed in yourself. Those undone tasks weigh you down.
Saying you “should” do something dangles more tasks over your head like wannabe mistletoe, and it takes the focus off what’s most important for you to get done.
If you catch yourself “should”ing, try this brilliant holiday hack: Change that “should” to “could” and add “or…” to the end.
For example, let’s say you catch yourself saying this: “I should knit homemade stockings for the whole family using wool I sheared myself at the sheep farm three hours outside of town.” Stop that “should” in its reindeer tracks and say this: “I could knit homemade stockings for the whole family, or I could pour myself another eggnog and order them from Amazon instead.”
4. Make One Task Your Universe
Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is nothing to brag about. Multitasking makes it harder for you to concentrate, and it adds to your stress.
Even worse than that, constantly switching between tasks makes everything take longer. Multitasking increases the amount of time it takes to finish your primary task by an average of 25%.
Pick one thing from your list and focus on that one task. If you struggle with this, try setting a timer for 20-30 minutes to help you focus.
If you’re raking leaves but you have a gabazillion other things you should be doing right now – make that a gabazillion other things you could be doing right now – accept the fact that you chose to rake leaves right now. Pay attention to the crunch of the leaves, the sunlight falling through the trees, the cold grip of the rake on your hand.
Make that task your universe.
5. Think of This, Once a Day
Here’s the absolute best thing you can do to keep the holiday stress from getting to you: Think of what you’re grateful for.
Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait – more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and gratitude as a discipline protects us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health.
But it doesn’t work if you focus on gratitude just once in a while. The effects will wear off, and you’ll start taking things for granted again.
You must make gratitude part of your routine. As explained in Gratitude Works, once a week is the bare minimum.
By the way, this is why the free printable planner page at the bottom of this post includes a section for recording what you’re grateful for every day in December. In my family, we’ve also started going around the table at dinnertime to share what everyone is grateful for – even the toddler.
And here’s a funny tidbit for you: As it turns out, it doesn’t even matter if you can’t think of something you’re grateful for. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this happens to me all the time.
For example: The toddler is throwing a tantrum because she wants a snack five minutes before dinner’s ready, the baby spit up all over me, and the dog just walked into the kitchen smacking her lips after a visit to the cats’ litter box.
Instead of screaming and running from the house, I try to catch myself in those moments and ask: “What am I grateful for?”
In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, I learned that if I can’t think of anything in that moment, it’s okay. I still get the benefits of a gratitude habit. Not only that, by continuing to ask myself that question, I’m making it easier to answer myself the next time:
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
6. Drink Eggnog
During especially busy times like the holidays, your tendency may be to crank, crank, crank on your to-do list. But trying to be super productive for long stretches of time will actually hurt you.
“You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you’re doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it’s difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.”
What’s more, all the tasks and decisions you make throughout the day wear on your brain. Your brain needs a chance to recuperate so you don’t turn into Clark Griswold after he opened his Jelly of the Month Club “bonus.”
Every day during this busy time, take at least one deliberate break. If you can take more, even better.
A few ideas to get you on the Polar Express train to a happier holiday season:
- Invite your kids to join you in some simple holiday fun – like watching Elf, making paper snowflakes, or sipping eggnog by the cozy fire.
- Take a quick walk around your neighborhood. Bonus points if you do it after dark and check out the festive Christmas lights.
- Set the timer for 10 minutes and meditate. If that sounds weird, I get it because I felt the same way. Then I tried meditating using an app called Headspace, and I’m SOLD. Nothing clears my mind of stress like taking 10 minutes to…well, clear my mind. The app is available for iOS and Android.
- Steal one of your kid’s coloring books, and start coloring. The activity of coloring calls on both logic (staying in the lines) and creativity (picking colors and color schemes), and that combo package is exactly what your brain needs to chill out. You can even get one of these absolutely gorgeous coloring books designed just for adults. Treat yourself to some pretty gel pens, coloring brush pens, or a set of fancy colored pencils, and your stress will melt away.
7. Don’t Buy Gifts
This is the season of giving, but that doesn’t mean you have to go into mega credit card debt to cover everyone on your shopping list.
And guess what? Your loved ones don’t want all that stuff from you anyway. 84 percent of Americans said they would prefer a less materialistic holiday season. And 81 percent of adults appreciate when someone makes a donation to a charity in their name instead of giving a physical gift.
This year, try giving handmade gifts. And I don’t mean some Pinterest monstrosity crafted entirely from toilet paper rolls, glitter, and mason jars.
My crafting ability lies somewhere between lighting a candle and successfully cutting coupons – and you’d be surprised by how often I find myself cutting right into the barcode. If you’re like me or if you’d like to give your loved one gifts they’ll actually appreciate instead of shove in the back of the closet until next year’s white elephant gift exchange, here are some DIY Christmas gift ideas for you:
- 15 Fool-Proof DIY Christmas Gifts
- 15 DIY Christmas Gifts Anyone Can Make – And Everyone Will Love
- If you plan to make a donation in your loved one’s name, check out these free cards that say a donation has been made in your name, but in a way that will make your loved one smile.
Download Your Free Planner Template
- Download the planner template. You’ll get the printable, plus join my weekly newsletter! Just click here to download and subscribe.
- Print one for every day of December. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be super sturdy.
- Fill out your planner every morning and say goodbye to holiday stress.
How do you keep the holiday stress at bay? Share in a comment below!
I’m a mom of four, a recovering perfectionist, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. Parenting is hard enough without all the guilt we heap on top of ourselves. So let’s stop trying to be perfect parents and just be real ones. Sound good? Join my mailing list and as a bonus, you’ll get 25+ incredibly helpful cheat sheets that will ease your parenting struggles.