Top Tips for Staying Productive During the Holidays

We all know that the holiday season is a stressful time, but it can also be the most distracting time for anyone trying to get work done.

You’ll just be sitting at your desk, hands hovering over the keyboard, pretending to work. But really, all you can think about is what cookies to bake for the office party or whether you should get your boss a present or not (hint, you should).

All of the sudden, you get a calendar alert and realize you’re scheduled to give a presentation you haven’t prepared for because you were too busy day-dreaming about those cookies.

Trust me, I get it.  

The holidays are crazy distracting here at FluentStream too. Our office party is legendary and my cookies are always the highlight so expectations are super high.

And that isn’t even half of the list.

Typically, there’s also end-of-year reviews, next-year planning, family events, shopping, and recovering from too much eggnog. After Thanksgiving, it feels like I have an average of 17 minutes a day to focus on my actual work (yes, I know my boss is reading this and it’s why I’ll be getting him a great gift).

Fortunately, I have discovered some premium tips for staying productive and focused during the holiday season that I’m happy to share with all of you.

That’s what the holidays are all about, right? Helping each other get more work done in less time so we can all enjoy the season together! So here they are:

1. Make a To-Do List and Check It Twice

Okay, okay… Cringeworthy Santa Claus references aside, to-do lists are a key part of surviving the holiday season with your sanity intact. Between your work and personal lives, there are at minimum a million things you need to remember. Projects, parties, decorations, cards, sales, presents, presentations—all before December 31st.

Let’s be honest, you can’t keep everything straight in your head. Even trying will likely result in a lot of “Did I do that? Oh no…” moments. The answer, quite simply, is to write it all down so you don’t get overwhelmed.

By keeping holiday to-do lists for both your professional and personal life throughout the season, you free yourself to focus on your current tasks without the constant stress of forgetting something important.

However, a list is only useful if you can look at it, so I also recommend keeping track digitally on your phone or laptop rather than a notebook or calendar. That way, it’s with you wherever you go for quick checks and additions.

2. Use the Peace and Quiet to Knock Out Projects 

Raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar:

You start a new project and immediately get in your groove. Progress is flying by so fast you’re certain you can finish it that day!

Then your boss asks for help with something.

Then your coworker messages you about the football game last night.

Then suddenly it’s time for a meeting that doesn’t even directly involve you.

Before you know it, all that earlier inspiration has dried up and the project you dared to dream you could finish today becomes a week-long slog.

Yep, that’s a lot of hands in the air. Luckily, this is where the holiday season actually works to your productivity’s advantage.

With so many people on vacation (or at least bogged down with their own holiday anxieties), you should be able to find a few quiet days to knock out a heavy workload.

And even if most of the office is still around, book a conference room for yourself and just pretend you’re alone. If anyone knocks, just ignore them.

The same rules apply when working from home. Designate a room or Amazon box fort as your Do Not Disturb zone and get your nose to the grindstone. Trust me, everything else you’re worried about will still be there when you’re finished.

3. Commit to Fewer Meetings

A major struggle of the holiday season is that it’s nigh impossible to work in your regular meetings around everyone’s newly-hectic-as-heck schedules. The quick and easy solution to this is… don’t even try!

Cut your meetings down to the bare essentials it takes to keep your business running smoothly. You’ll open up loads of free time during your own week, and also earn big thank you’s from everyone else scrambling to get their work done.

This is also the gift that gives year round as your team will discover just how many meetings can be replaced with emails, phone calls, and even quick chat messages. Sure, more meetings will creep back in throughout the year, but at least you can look forward to giving them the boot next holiday season.

4. Give Yourself Time Limits (and Stick to Them!)

Setting time limits for yourself is a useful productivity trick any time of the year, but doubly so during the holidays. Instead of saying you’ll “finish something today” or “by midweek,” plan out the whole task and give yourself structured, short term deadlines.

If locking yourself into tight timeframes sounds like a pain, that’s because it is. However, unlike the pain of frantically rushing projects you’ve been procrastinating for days, self-imposed deadlines are constructively painful.

Blocking out two hours to complete a task you know will take you roughly an hour and a half makes it much easier to overcome procrastination and perfectionism. How? Because you have to or else you’ll be behind schedule! You’ll be surprised how much less time you spend distracted when you leave literally no time to get distracted.

All that being said, setting time limits for yourself only works if you actually stick to them. Don’t try and force yourself into being more productive than ever before. Don’t set a project pace you can’t possibly keep up with.

You know yourself and your job better than anyone. If it only takes you an hour to do something, then don’t set aside the whole afternoon just in case. Be realistic with your goals and you’ll be shocked at how much extra time you have to handle the holidays.

5. Make Sure Customers Know When You’ll Be Closed

Here’s a cold, hard truth for you: Customers don’t care about your holiday plans. They care about their holiday plans. Just as you’re extra-stressed and trying to stay productive, so are they.

Therefore, it makes sense that customers will get incredibly annoyed (sometimes downright furious) if they try to give you a call and suddenly find out you’re closed. Without lifting a finger, you’ve now accidentally given someone a negative opinion of your business.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! If your office is planning to be closed during the holidays, make that information available in as many ways as possible. Put up a sign at your front desk. Update the menu message on your phone system to let callers know which specific days you’ll be closed. Make announcements on your website and social media accounts.

Set up a temporary voicemail message on your extension so anyone who calls you directly isn’t left waiting for a call back that will never come.

If your business still needs to be open for emergencies, make sure you also set up ways callers can reach you even when you’re at home or on vacation.

6. Schedule Worry Time into Your Week

That title isn’t a joke. According to licensed social worker Kim Pratt, scheduling specific times to worry about your hectic holidays “can help you develop control over the frequency and timing of your worry.” Research has shown that “this technique known as stimulus control training in the CBT world teaches you how to contain your worry to designated periods, thereby freeing up the mind for other important, interesting, or fun activities.”

Ideally, these scheduled anxiety sessions wouldn’t be during your workday. But, if you need to, there’s also nothing wrong with setting aside 15-30 minute time blocks to focus on personal tasks.

During your worry times, write down what is causing you stress and how each situation could be improved. You don’t need to come up with solutions in the moment. Instead, focus on getting all of your thoughts out of your head so that you can refocus on work priorities.

In many cases, you’ll find that worries don’t seem so bad when they’re written down and tangible. You also may notice that you’re worried about things out of your direct control. Especially during the holiday season with unpredictable schedules, sales, and weather, this can be a recipe for mental disaster.

As cliche as it sounds, a lot of stress can be avoided by focusing more on what you can control rather than what you can’t.

7. Don’t Let Yourself Shop at Work

Online shopping is the double-edged sword of the holiday season. On the one hand, you can shop whenever and wherever you want. On the other hand, you can shop whenever and wherever you want. For many of us, those times and places include during our work days at our work desks.

Yes it’s convenient, but it’s also a productivity black hole that can derail entire days in search of deals. During the busiest time of the year for many businesses, few things look worse than getting caught shopping on the clock.

At my previous job, one of our salespeople started sharing his screen during a meeting. Everyone in the room (including his boss and boss’s boss) immediately saw that 7 out of his 9 open tabs were online shopping-related. It was… not good.

Take this cautionary tale to heart and keep your heartfelt gift purchases at home where they belong. 

8. Allow Yourself to Say No to Invites

There’s something about the holiday season—the cheer, the togetherness, the decorations—that just really… makes me say yes to way too many things.

Extra tasks at work for people who are on vacation? Yes!

Holiday parties literally on the same days I already have plans? Yes!

A new project with a rapidly-approaching deadline? Yes please!

Over-scheduling yourself during the holidays is always tempting because at first it feels like you’re being even more productive than usual. Then all of your many, many tasks start piling up, and you start to scramble. Your work gets sloppier. You have less fun at events. You’re just so dang tired all the time. It’s a vicious cycle.

Rather than blindly saying yes to every new thing that seems helpful or fun, start choosing your extra holiday activities carefully.

Don’t try to make up for every coworker off enjoying their vacation.

Leave some last-minute projects for the other people at your office.

Learn how to look into your friend’s sad puppy dog eyes and tell her, “Sorry, I can’t make it to your traditional Pennyslvanian Dutch Belsnickel party. I already have plans that night.”

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