The holidays are stressful enough, what with the frenzy of travel, last-minute shopping and relatives determined to push your buttons. The last thing you need to add to the mix is unfinished work.
Picture it: Three days before Christmas and you’ve still got to bake your great-grandma’s famous cookies, do your eleventh-hour shopping, scrub the house, pick up relatives from the airport and finish up that year-end marketing report and field a couple of client calls.
You know the holidays aren’t going to be Norman Rockwell perfect. You’ve accepted that. Still, it would be great if you could at least leave work behind this year and just enjoy the holidays.
Actually, says New York Times best-selling author Brian Moran, you don’t have to show up late to your child’s holiday play because you’re tying up a work project, or run off to check your email while the turkey gets cold. You just need to muster up some discipline and think about time in a different way.
“Successful people work with great focus and intention, and they play the same way,” says Moran, coauthor – along with Michael Lennington – of the New York Times best seller "The 12-Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months." “When they’re working they’re really working, and when they take time off, they make the absolute most of that time. Rest and rejuvenation are the other side of the success coin.
Moran suggests being “purposeful about how you spend the time leading up to the holiday breaks. The reason most people end up working during their holiday time off isn’t that they just have so much to do that they can never take a break. It’s that they aren’t working with intention when they have the opportunity, and thus, they aren’t executing effectively.”
Many of us spend our days reacting to problems rather than proactively moving toward our goals, said Moran, and that’s how we can end up feeling pulled in 100 different directions, especially when the holidays – and their associated tasks, like decorating, entertaining, traveling and shopping – roll around.
Free Yourself From Work Worries
Here are a few essential tips for what you can do right now to make sure your days off are free of work worries (not to mention shopping-cooking-decorating worries) so that you can spend true quality time with family and friends.
Picture the perfect holiday. Pigging out on grandma’s apple pie. Singing carols with your kids. Cheering on your favorite football team. These are the makings of a great holiday season, and they should serve as the vision that will drive you through the hard work you’ll have to get done before the office shuts down for the holidays.
“Vision is the starting point of all high performance,” says Moran. “It is the first place where you engage your thinking about what is possible for you. The more personally compelling your vision is, the more likely it is that you will act on it. It is your personal vision that creates an emotional connection to the daily actions that need to take place in your business. Once you understand the link between your vision (including that perfect holiday season) and your work, you can define exactly what you need to do to make the most of your time off.”
Create a pre-holiday season plan. In The 12-Week Year, Moran and Lennington explain that working from a plan has three distinct benefits: it reduces mistakes; it saves time; and it provides focus. Planning, they write, allows you to think through in advance the best approach to achieving your goals. You make your mistakes on paper, which reduces miscues during implementation.
“Leading up to the holidays, it is a good idea to create a plan for each work week you have left,” noted Moran. “Your weekly plan captures just the keystone actions that drive your most important results. It defines your short-term and long-term commitments in the context of what you have to do this week. Be sure to include in your plan the non-work related tasks the holidays add to your plate, such as present shopping, tree decorating, gift wrapping, and so on. You will need to be sure to factor in time for these activities as well.”
For example, as part of the first week of your pre-holiday season plan, you might set up a meeting with your boss, colleagues and/or clients to a) inform them of how much time you’ll be taking off for the holidays, and b) let them know what projects you’re going to prioritize. On the home front, you might also get together with your spouse to work out who will be handling what holiday responsibilities.
“All of this helps you focus on the elements of your plan that must happen each week in order to make that perfect holiday vision possible,” said Moran.
Resign yourself to being uncomfortable now so you can be comfortable later. Without a compelling reason to choose otherwise, most people will take comfortable actions over uncomfortable ones. This is just human nature. Problem is, the uncomfortable tasks you avoided prior to your holiday break are precisely the ones that will blow up, get out of control, or just keep you worrying while you’re trying to enjoy some time off.
“Important actions are often the uncomfortable ones,” said Moran. “In our experience, the number one thing you will have to sacrifice to be great, to achieve what you are capable of, and to execute your plans is your comfort. So, if your goal is to have a carefree holiday break, commit to sacrificing your short-term comfort today so that you can reach it. Take care of any tasks you’ve been avoiding now so that they can’t ruin your time off and so that they aren’t on your mind when you’re trying to have a good time.”
Know what to do when you’re not doing the things you know you need to do. Of course, upping the work ante prior to taking time off won’t be easy. There will be times when your level of execution is less than exceptional, and it’s very likely you won’t be able to ignore the nagging, guilty feeling that drop in execution brings on. But the good news is you can use that feeling – what the authors call productive tension – to get yourself back on track.
Productive tension is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re not doing the things you know you need to do, said Moran. Our natural inclination when confronted with discomfort is to resolve it. Sometimes this leads people to simply bail on their plans. In your case, it might mean resolving that you simply can’t get everything done before your time off that you need to get done.
“But productive tension can also be used as a catalyst for change,” added Moran. “Instead of responding to the discomfort by bailing, use the tension as an impetus to move forward. When you eliminate bailing out as an option, then the discomfort of productive tension will eventually compel you to take action on your tactics. If turning back is not an option, then the only way to resolve the discomfort is to move forward by executing your plan.”
Make the most of performance time and down time. As you work toward your time off, it will be very important that you not respond to the demands of the day reactively. In other words, you can’t satisfy the various demands of the day as they are presented, spending whatever time is needed to respond without giving any thought to the relative value of the activity. You have to use your time wisely.
You can keep control of your day through time blocking. Basically, you block your day into three kinds of blocks– strategic blocks, buffer blocks and breakout blocks. A strategic block is uninterrupted time that is scheduled into each week. During this block, you accept no phone calls, no faxes, no emails, no visitors, no anything. Buffer blocks are designed to deal with all of the unplanned and low-value activities – like most email and voicemail – that arise throughout a typical day, while breakout blocks provide free time for you to use to rest and rejuvenate.
“Again, be sure to factor non-work related holiday tasks into your blocked out time,” advised Moran. “If you don’t, these will be precisely the tasks that you’re either squeezing in at the last minute or end up doing in lieu of finishing up that project or returning a client’s call.”
He suggested that even in the frantic rush leading up to the holidays, everyone should allow themselves some down time.
Don’t go it alone. It’s likely that out of your network of colleagues and friends you aren’t the only one who is a) hoping to have a work-free holiday break, and b) currently working frantically to make that goal possible. And if that’s the case, team up with them. The peer support you receive will be invaluable in your pursuit of the perfect holiday season.
Isolate yourself from modern day distractions. In our modern world, technology can be a major distraction. When you’re focused on executing your pre-holiday season plan, don’t let smartphones, social media and the Internet distract you from your higher-value activities.
“Some spontaneity is healthy, but if you are not purposeful with your time, you’ll get thrown off course,” explained Moran. “Allow yourself to get distracted by emails, social media, or the latest viral video while you’re working your pre-holiday break plan, and before you know it, you’ll be working on the project you didn’t finish while the rest of your family is laughing and having fun in the kitchen while baking holiday treats. Learn to isolate yourself from distractions when there is important work to be done.”
Make a keystone commitment for your holiday break, something like getting fit. Then build a 12-week plan around it with a handful of tactics like “do 20 minutes of cardio three times a week,” “train with weights three times a week” etc. But the other option is to again set a 12-week goal but, rather than building a tactical plan, identify a keystone or core action and commit to completing it every day for the next 12 weeks.
Your keystone commitment might be making breakfast for your family every morning – something you don’t get to do during a normal work week, suggested Moran. Or you might commit to doing a different holiday activity with your family each day – driving around to look at Christmas lights or going to a candlelight service or working in the local soup kitchen.
“Your time off is precious, especially this time of year,” said Moran. “Don’t ruin it by giving your smartphone all the attention. You need that time to rest and rejuvenate so that when you do go back to work you’re ready and committed to making great things happen.”