Handle the Holidays Like a Time Management Guru

Photo: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Holiday weeks sound great, in theory — a few days off work! More time to relax! The problem, as many of us relearn each year, is that if you’re already feeling pressed for time, taking Thursday and Friday off is not a stress-free activity. Rather than preparing to unwind, you’re staring at your calendar wondering if it is possible to cram a week’s deliverables into three days instead of five.

But the thing with holidays is that they occur at scheduled, regular times. In other words, we can plan for them. Here’s how I handle holiday weeks so that the days off actually feel like days off:

Think at least a week in advance

Every Friday, I spend 20 minutes or so making a priority list for the upcoming week. I also look ahead to see if anything major is coming up. If any workweek over the next two to three weeks will be significantly shorter because of holidays, a vacation, or extensive appointments, I want to build this into my mental model of time earlier rather than later.

Take advantage of predictability

One of my major gigs is hosting two every-weekday-morning podcasts. Since the topics — time management and productivity — are not tied to any particular day’s news, I can bank episodes for the future.

Most jobs have at least some predictability to them. Get in the habit of carving out an hour or two each week to work on future tasks you know will land on your plate. If Future You faced a major time crunch, what would you be happy you’d already done? In the week before a holiday week, aim to double this work-ahead time. This doesn’t necessarily require working longer hours — just being more strategic about devoting what’s often lost time (the space between meetings, the minutes lost to inefficient task-shifting and too-frequent inbox visits) to prepping for future tasks.

Find bonus spots

As I plan my holiday weeks, I look for extra hours I might have available for work tasks. That’s how I wound up writing several podcast scripts during a child’s rock climbing class on Sunday morning. I often use the “split shift” — the hour of focused time I have at night after my younger children go to bed and before my brain stops functioning.

I don’t want to give up high-quality leisure time, but if I’d just be surfing Instagram during that time? That’s a trade-off I’ll make to keep the holidays work-free.

Push calls and meetings forward

I have learned, over the years, that meetings scheduled for the day before a holiday break are almost always canceled. While this can be frustrating (did no one else notice the holiday was coming up?) you can save people from themselves by insisting these meetings happen either much earlier, or later (after the holiday). Given that canceled meetings will wind up rescheduled after the holiday anyway, you’re just acknowledging reality, while saving yourself the psychic stress of wondering whether that check-in will actually happen.

Give each hour a job

I schedule my holiday weeks very carefully. The Friday before the holiday week, I list the tasks that absolutely must happen before I go offline, being careful not to complicate this list with anything that doesn’t actually have to happen until later. I then figure out exactly when these tasks will happen, being mindful of how long they will take. One key is to limit email responses to the nooks and crannies of the days, preserving my best hours (generally mornings) for bigger tasks.

Always catch a pretend plane

I pretend I have to catch a plane at noon on the day before a holiday break. I’m usually not really flying anywhere, but doing this means I leave the afternoon open. When stuff comes up — and stuff always comes up — that space is available to absorb it. If you can manage it, you might even pretend that plane leaves at 8 a.m. That will give you a more relaxed day to ease into the holiday itself.

Schedule in some fun

The upside of planning a holiday week carefully is that it is quite possible you won’t just accomplish everything you need to do, but accomplish it with room to spare in your schedule. When I know there is space for everything, I can feel okay scheduling a run from 3–4 p.m. on a day early in the week. Or I can work on a big Lego project with my older kids in the evening without worrying that I need to be doing something else. Holidays are supposed to be fun, after all — not all work.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store