Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Guide to a Stress-Free Christmas

Every year, the media publish dozens of guides to a stress-free Christmas, in newspapers, lifestyle magazines, and indeed on TV. In truth, they probably do this because it's an easy way to fill up pages, but I'm also presuming that at least some people buy them, read them... and then find that they invariably don't work.

The reason they don't work is fairly simple: they're crafted by and for people whose profession is 'celebrity', and in particular by celebrities whose entire fame is built on maintaining that 'aspirational' lifestyle. So when Kirsty Allsop casually says that she likes to craft all her own decorations, that's effectively because it's her entire job to show scenes of domestic bliss at Christmas. The rest of us need to fit these things around everything else in our lives, which is not so easy.

But it is possible to get a guide to a (relatively) stress-free Christmas. The problem is, you have to assemble it yourself.

Here's how...

Year One

Like many useful tools, the guide isn't something you should spend hours writing once up-front and forever after leave unchanged. Like rarely allows the time to do that. Instead, it's better assembled a bit at a time and refined as you go on. The added advantage of this is that it becomes more valuable as time goes on.

So, in the first year, you'll be working without a guide, and assembling the guide as you go.

  1. First, created a folder on your PC called something sensible like "Christmas Guide". (Or, you could start a physical folder called the same, but I'm not going to do that.)
  2. Within that folder, create a first document called something like "Scrapsheet". You might also want to start a document called "Christmas Guide", but that can wait.
  3. Do whatever it is you do for Christmas as normal. The only difference is that as you go you should take a note of what you do, how you do it, and when you do it. And if something goes wrong, record that, too. Take these notes in the Scrapsheet.
  4. For things like Christmas cards you send and presents you buy, make lists of who you send them to and any relevant addresses.
  5. Make sure you record the whole process, from start to finish - that is, from the moment you buy the first present/send the first card/put up the first decoration right through to the moment it's all packed away again.

After Christmas is all done for the year, and at the first available opportunity, it's important to start building your proper guide.

For each of the major tasks, you'll want at least a page in your Christmas Guide. In each case, put down the details of what's needed, where the things you need are stored (for example, if your decorations are all in a big blue box in the loft, put that in the guide!), and any other useful information. In each case, assign a date to the task - either the date taken from the Scrapsheet or, if something went wrong with the task, some earlier date. Make sure everything that is recorded in the Scrapsheet gets transferred to the Christmas Guide in some form.

As you fill out the Christmas Guide, you should remove the corresponding notes from the Scrapsheet - don't have things recorded twice. Eventually, the Scrapsheet should be empty, at which point it should be deleted.

Again, for things like Christmas cards and presents (and also the big "Christmas shop"), you should probably start a separate document/spreadsheet recording useful information - the list of people to send cards with their addresses, the list of people to buy presents and any relevant price limits/likes and dislikes, and the list of things to buy.

Be aware that none of these documents will be perfect. They're not meant to be perfect; they're meant to be useful.

Year Two

For the remainder of that year, don't worry about Christmas until roughly the end of October. Then go access the Christmas Guide you wrote last year, which you'll now use to help you organise your activities.

This time out, you're using the Guide to help with Christmas, but you're also using Christmas to test the Guide. So go through the process, but don't trust the Guide to be correct - if you find that you've forgotten to record "put up the decorations" in the Guide, you should probably still do it! If and when you find a weakness in the Guide, do whatever you should and then fix the Guide.

At this stage, you should find that Christmas goes much more smoothly, but you'll probably also find plenty of things wrong with the Guide. Both of these are good things.

After Year Two

After the second year, you should find you have a Guide that is a pretty good record of what you do at Christmas, plus pretty decent lists of all the people you send cards to, all the presents you need to buy, and the list for the big Christmas shop. (Again, the key here is pretty good. They won't be perfect.)

This is now the point where you should start thinking about optimising the process.

Personally, I would compile four lists: things that you enjoy, things that you don't enjoy but 'have' to do, things that you don't enjoy and don't have to do, and things you don't do but might like to try. (For instance, you might really like Christmas dinner, not like wrapping presents but have to do it, not like putting lights on all the windows, and think you might quite like to make some decorations.)

For the things you enjoy: great! Don't change anything.

For the things you don't enjoy but 'have' to do: since these have to be done, try to minimise them. (In the example of wrapping presents, you could either adopt a policy of wrapping one or two every evening so that it's spread out into bite-size chunks; or you might decide to set aside one afternoon to just tackle them all and get it done. There's no 'right' answer to that - do whichever you think you'd hate least, or try both and then decide.)

For the things you don't enjoy and don't 'have' to do: Don't do them. It really is as simple as that. (And, indeed, note that in your Guide - "We've decided not to do this!")

And that opens up time for:

Things you don't do but might like to try: Set aside some time to try it out next year. If it works, great. If it doesn't work, well, now you know not to try it next year. (As a good rule of thumb, for each task you drop in the step above, you should be able to try out one new task here. So if you don't light your windows, you can try making some decorations.)

Year Three, and Beyond

With each additional year, you should pull out your Guide and use it to organise your process. As before, if you find the Guide is wrong, change it. But that should hopefully happen less and less as the Guide gets better, and the Guide should become increasingly useful.

An Additional Note on Christmas Cards

When the time comes to deal with Christmas cards, you should pull out your handy list of people and addresses. However, this list is more prone to change than most elements in the process, so bears some additional thought. So, ask yourself some questions:

  1. Do I still want to send a card to all these people? If the last time you communicated with them was when you sent them a card last year, the answer is "probably not". But that's your call - just be sure to ask yourself the question.
  2. Is there anyone else I need to send a card to?
  3. Are these the right addresses? If not, fix your list. But, hopefully, most of the list will remain accurate most years - and having a handy list all in one place should save significant time, even though it needs checked each year.

An Additional Note on Getting Started

It's quite likely that when you first start out in your own home you have visions of a 'perfect' tree with a tasteful abundance of decorations, of sending everyone handmade cards, of having a perfect turkey with too many trimmings, and so on and so forth. It's all wonderfully over-the-top, impractical... and actually impossible in year one.

My strong recommendation here is not even to try to do all that in year one. Instead, it's far better to do a very small set of things well, and then build up. So, maybe in year one you decorate the tree with a whole lot of borrowed decorations. Then, the year after, you substitute some of those for new ones, then a few more, and a few more, until you eventually reach your goal. Likewise, maybe in year one you do the cards and presents, but don't do the turkey at all (dine out!). Then, in year two, add the turkey, then the carol concert in year three, and so on.

An Additional Note on Changes

The big problem with using a Christmas Guide to get organised is that it can cause things to become rigid and samey. After all, if you're doing exactly the same things in exactly the same order every year, where's the spontenaity?

My recommendation here is to actually build the changes into the Guide - once you've got Christmas organised and working the way you like, start doing a "change one thing" - either each year, or every few years, identify one thing you'd like to try differently. And, that year, do that one thing differently. That way, you get the reassuringly comforting for almost everything, and you get the novelty of trying something new. (Of course, you might find you don't like the "one thing", in which case you know not to do it again. Or maybe you love it, and it becomes the new norm. Huzzah!)

Anyway, that's my thoughts on the Guide to a Stress-free Christmas.

#66: "N.E.W. Science Fiction Role-playing Game", by Russ Morrissey
#67: "Cold Comfort Farm", by Stella Gibbons (a book from The List)

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