By Jonathan Pishner

The time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s can be a great time of year. Lots of food, visiting friends and family, parties, travel, gifts, there are all kinds of things to enjoy during the holiday season.

Sadly, many people feel upset and stressed during this season.

I’d like to point out the biggest mistake that is made during this time of year, and help you to avoid it so that you can look forward to the holidays!

The mistake: People turn this period into a giant to-do list.

If you’re feeling stressed about the holidays, stop and think about why. For most, it is because for 6-8 weeks you’ve turned your life into a massive, never-ending to-do list.

Here is an average holiday to-do list: (just fill in the numbers)

  • Attend ___ family/friend dinners (including buying/preparing the food you take)
  • Purchase ___ Christmas/Hanukah gifts (including budgeting the money, shopping, wrapping)
  • Go to ___ Holiday parties (including buying/taking food, finding something to wear)
  • Organize/cook ___ meals for friends/family (includes shopping, prepping, cleaning up)
  • Purchase ___ last minute gifts that you forgot about (anything last minute is a big stress)
  • Travel to ___ different states or countries (including making all travel arrangements)
  • Visit ___ people you’d rather not see (taking time away from things you’d like to do)


No wonder people get stressed.

So how do you fix it?

I’m going to propose a few things to do, and I’ll tell you to stop reading and do them before going on to the next section.

Step 1: Recognize that you have very few real obligations

Many people get caught up in the to-do list out of a sense of obligation. They tell themselves that they “have to” get great-aunt Gertrude a gift or they “have to” attend the Jones family Christmas party.

How many things have you told yourself that you “have to” do?

Let me tell you a secret. You don’t “have to” do any of it.

Human beings have to do 4 things: eat, drink, sleep, and breathe. EVERYTHING else is optional. Parties, gifts, family visits, stockings, and turkeys are all optional.

Once you recognize this, trimming down the to-do list becomes possible.

Step 2: Audit the to-do list

Now that you know everything is optional, let’s look at the list again with new eyes.

Stop right here, get out a sheet of paper (or word document) and think about your list.

Now, write down ONLY those things that you actually want to do. Include the What and the Who. Example: Christmas gifts for kids; New Year’s party with co-workers; etc. If you still want to do something out of a sense of “have to”, you don’t get to add it yet (we’ll look at those later).

This might be hard at first, because it is easy for us to get caught up in obligations and forget what we actually want. Take some time with this step if you need to.  List only the things you actually want to do.

So now that you’ve written only the things you want to do, how many items are left? Many fewer, I’ll bet. And if it still looks too long, you can start taking off the items you want to do the least. Keep doing this until your list is more manageable.

The benefit of having a to-do list of mostly things you want to do is that it seems MUCH less like work, and is a lot more enjoyable.

Step 3: Allowing a few obligations (optional step)

Remember when I said we’d come back to those things you “have to” do?

The reason we end up telling ourselves that we “have to” do something is because there is a potential consequence we don’t like.  For example: if you don’t visit your parents when the rest of the family is in, they might get mad at you.

So let’s look at the list of things you don’t want to do, but feel that you “have to”. Pick the three biggest obligations and write them on the same sheet as your last assignment.

Now, with each of those, put down the consequences you are afraid of that make you think you “have to” do it.  Be realistic.  What is the worst thing that’s likely to happen if you don’t do it.

Are they serious consequences, or mild? Or maybe no real consequences at all?

Here is how you decide if these “obligations” can go back on the list: if the pain of the consequence would be GREATER than the relief from not going (or doing, buying, etc), then it can go back on the list.

Here are a couple of good examples of this:

Maybe you really hate Christmas shopping, but you still want to get your children presents because their disappointment is too great a consequence.  If so, you might decide it’s worth a few hours and some money to avoid disappointing them.

Or maybe you can’t afford to miss your employer’s holiday party because it gives you face time with the people who control your pay and promotions.  In that case, it might make sense to trade 3 hours to ensure that big promotion comes through.

When you want to avoid certain negative consequences, you can choose to put some things back on the list. As long as you recognize you still don’t “have to”.

Which brings us to….

Step 4: View EVERYTHING as a choice

This part of the holiday mindset is very important. Obligations and things we “have to” do are stressful. Choosing to do something is much less so.

Telling yourself that you “have to” do something makes you feel trapped and helpless. And when your list is filled with one “have to” after another, it can make the holidays pure misery.

But when you view yourself as choosing to buy gifts or host dinners, it allows you to focus on the positives, and on the reasons you wanted to do it in the first place.

Even if it stretches you thin, you will feel more in control. You will recognize that if you want, you can stop at any time, and that you’re doing it for a better reason than because you “have to”.

And knowing that is freeing.

We hope this helps you free yourself from stress and enjoy the holiday season.


Happy Holidays from Apex Counseling!


Photo: Christmas To Do List by Jon Curnow / is licensed under CC BY 2.0