This week, I have had conversations with several people about how exhausted they are. These conversations happened with women and men, many of whom cited a year of constant change. They talked about changes at work, such as reorganizations, new projects, new technology, mergers and acquisitions. Many also experienced challenges at home, like weathering a natural disaster, supporting an ailing parent, moving to a new home, or tackling the “new math” with their kids. (You know you’re in trouble when a constant like math changes.)
From studying the neuroscience of change, I’ve learned how it can affect productivity and positivity, impacting our organizations and our relationships. Hearing the stories of my burnt-out colleagues got me thinking about what a crazy this time of year is for all of us, as we try to create festive holiday experiences both at work and at home.
Those people I spoke with this week were exhausted, and didn’t know how they were going to get through the holidays. They mentioned shopping for and shipping presents, attending parties, traveling to visit people, sending out cards, and following those memorable holiday traditions through baking, cooking, and decorating.
I was right there with them, feeling a bit overwhelmed myself. I am typing this on a flight back from Washington, DC, and when I land, I need to get some cupcakes ready for my daughter’s school party. Here are some tips that I am using to deal with holiday fatigue this season. Consider how they might help you or the people you work with.
- Dial down your expectations. Media sells us the image of cheerful families, beautifully decorated houses, and scrumptious meals—yet, in reality, those were paid actors and plastic turkeys spray painted to look the perfect golden brown. Dial down your expectations to be more realistic. No one achieves the Hallmark card, and it feels great to stop trying to hit that unrealistic bar. Think about something that overwhelms you and consider how you can simplify it (and if you can’t, ditch it all together) to make things feel more reasonable.
- Permit yourself to say no. We often say yes out of habit, or from not wanting to disappoint others, but it’s OK to have limits. I recommend Dr. Brené Brown’s work on Boundaries: Why You Say Yes When You Mean No on knowing when and how to say no. Remember, it takes an average forty to fifty repetitions to form a habit, and until we get there a new behavior will feel a little awkward or even uncomfortable. But saying no to some things will make the other things—the ones that matter to you most—more enjoyable.
- Combine things in creative ways. The sheer volume of everything we try to accomplish over the holidays is insane. Think about it—shopping, traveling, writing and sending cards, finalizing budgets, baking cookies, singing carols, going to parties, writing year-end reports…ugh. It’s not humanly possible, so after you have said no (see #2), look for ways to combine some of them. For example, instead of having coffee with four different friends, can you make it one lunch. Or turn card writing or present shopping into something you do with friends or family. At work, add some music and cookies to the year-end tasks to build a sense of community in the workplace.
- Use services and apps like Alexa, GrubHub, etc., to help manage the load. Tech can make our life easier if we use it to remove burdens rather than add to them. You might use voice activation systems to set up your appointments or order your pre-cooked turkey from a local store (my favorite discovery).
- Give experiences instead of gifts. Research shows that people experiences make people happier than physical gifts. So instead of buying more things, think about certificates to museums, concerts, bowling, etc. Make thoughtful choices and write a short note about your wish to give them a new experience and memory.
- Manage stress with time in nature. Being outside near nature has a proven calming effect on our nervous system because our brain recognizes the natural pattern (called a fractal) in all living, organic matter. So get outside, walk in the park, stare at the clouds. And put your phone in your pocket. Or better still, turn it off. Even a few minutes in nature will do wonders to your sense of calm, especially if you let yourself be fully present.
- Enjoy the soothing power of water. Water Is a powerful aspect of nature that we get to experience in our own homes. It’s why we often get our best ideas in the shower—they naturally provide soothing white noise and a rest from most visual stimulation, which opens the mind to inspiration. As Dr. Wallace Nichols, author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do puts it, the mere sight or sound of water has the ability to promote wellness by lowering cortisol, increasing serotonin, and inducing relaxation. This is what Dr. Nichols calls a “Blue Mind state,” which floods our minds and bodies with endorphins and positive neurochemicals, putting us at ease. So, walk in the rain. Sit by a river. Take a long bubble bath.
- Add some music to whatever you’re doing. Have you ever wondered why you can remember the lyrics to thousands of songs? Music is neurologically powerful. It gets wired in all the regions of our brain, making musical memory nearly indestructible (music therapy yields powerful results for anyone with brain injuries/trauma). Music can be calming as well as festive, and it’s part of every cultural heritage in the world. So go ahead and turn on those carols or jazz or whatever makes you happy. Music does the body good. I highly recommend the documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.
- Do a mindfulness practice, like yoga or meditation. I cannot state strongly enough how adopting a mindfulness practice will help your life. I came to mindfulness reluctantly but after reading the enormous amount of convincing research, I started my own daily ten-minute practice. There are lots of ways to try mindfulness with apps, recordings, local classes, and books. I encourage you to try for at least three to four weeks and see what you notice in your own life. Check out the book Altered Traits Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by doctors Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson. It makes a great gift, too.
- Express gratitude. In the season when we are told we should want more, it can be great to focus on what you already have. Study after study has shown that expressing gratitude is one of the most direct and fastest routes to happiness. Here are some easy ways to start (try them at home and at work).
- Tell people why they matter to you. You can do this verbally or in writing but just a short note is enough to make you feel good and give the recipient a boost too.
- Count your blessings, literally. Get out some paper and pens and make a list. My family sits down to hot cocoa as we write out our blessings on nice present tags. Then we string them together and hang them on a wall. It’s our version of the 12 days of Christmas but it works nicely with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever tradition is meaningful to you.
- Help someone else be grateful. The holidays can be a tough time for many people who are alone, or homeless, or dealing with a tragedy, illness, etc. Giving to others is a great way to express your gratitude, so consider donating your time or money to a local organization. You’ll be amazed at how much an act of kindness boosts you up as well.