How to Thrive at Work During the Holidays

It’s all about giving things up strategically.

Image by Naomi Elliott
Image by Naomi Elliott

Welcome to “How to Thrive at Work,” a new series by Thrive Global and WeWork‘s Creator about how to enhance your productivity, well-being, and happiness in the workplace.

It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means: Your social calendar fills up right as end-of-year work deadlines loom. Office parties, staff volunteer days, and other worthwhile but time-consuming events cut into both your workday and your downtime, making it that much trickier to hit all your project deliverables and get your gift shopping done on time. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be the season of joy?

It can be. There are ways to successfully integrate work and life while staying motivated and inspired. We tapped three career and well-being experts to share their best work survival tips for this season and beyond.

Say yes to things that truly make you happy. This time of year, “joy” can feel scripted — cue the over-the-top decorations, nonstop Christmas music, and gifts you neither need nor want to buy. And we feel incredible pressure to live up to the spirit of the holidays. To create a season that will truly make you happy, learn to say no. “You don’t have to attend every function. You don’t need to put yourself in financial stress. You don’t need to succumb to the pressure,” says Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and co-founder and CCO of Plasticity Labs, which helps organizations increase at-work satisfaction. By paring down to the events and activities that mean the most to you, you’ll be able to put your attention where it matters most. “We feel most fulfilled and rewarded when we are present with the people we’re closest to,” says Camille Preston, Ph.D., CEO of AIM Leadership, a management development and coaching firm. “Focus on the sentiment or the emotion in these moments.”

Establish vacation time early — and stick to it. Playing the office martyr is an express route to unhappiness and burnout. Instead, be clear in advance with your boss and your team about your time away –– and how much support you’ll need when you’re OOO. “Write down guidelines for those specific needs and set up your out-of-office [voicemail and email auto response] properly,” says Moss, who is also a founding member of the United Nations’ Global Happiness Council. “That means explaining that you will under no circumstances be checking emails while you are away.” Not sure you can keep off Slack? “You are no good to anyone if you take time off and don’t actually use it,” she warns. (Science backs this up: A 2017 report from the American Psychological Association on stress in America found that people who check their email/texts/social media accounts on a constant basis experience more stress than those who don’t. And for those who checked their emails regularly on their days off, the stress level was even higher.) If you can’t turn your work brain off easily, a good start is to remove your work email and Slack from your phone. “If it isn’t a life-and-death situation, it can wait,” she says.

Separate the must-dos from the nice-to-dos. It’s time to take a harsh look at your lists — assess what actually needs to be completed by the end of the year, and delete what doesn’t. “Think in terms of work and relationships that need to be procured or managed,” says Preston. “What must be done is anything that moves the dial or brings you joy.” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at the New School and co-founder of wellness-education program Healthclass 2.0, offers a sanity-saving way to end this year and usher in the next. “Tackle anything that is already overdue — projects, debts, and even tough conversations,” she says. “It’s anxiety-producing enough to be behind on things, but carrying this baggage into a new year only adds to that unease. Cross what you can off this list, and at least set new, realistic expectations for what you can’t.”

Automate and delegate. Preston has a simple four-step formula for creating more time in the day: Collate everything in your brain; eliminate what you can (see above); automate—build once, use many times; and delegate to whomever you can. Do this and you’ll have time to create and celebrate. Preston put this process to use with her extensive holiday gift list (collate): rather than buy individual hostess and other small gifts to hand out all month (eliminate), she bought one case of wine (automate). Then she paid someone to tie ribbons around each bottle (delegate). Now the case of wine is sitting in her cellar, each bottle beribboned and ready — no thinking or additional shopping required. “I can grab a bottle and go for different social occasions,” she explains.

Be deliberate with your time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by obligations, it’s time to lean on your calendar more, not less. “Every Sunday night I look at the week in front of me and decide how much time I’m going to devote to things throughout the week,” says Petrzela, who blocks off time for work-related projects, self-care, and everything in between. “I find it crucial to my sanity to get in five-six workouts a week, but this time of year, having that standard creates more stress for me,” she says. “So I block out three days for classes, and on other days I schedule a shorter 20-minute run on the treadmill in my building.” At work, she’s equally detailed. “I feel I can be a better colleague to others if I can be clear on what I can accomplish and commit to,” she says. Social activities get time-blocked as well. “I try to be reasonable about how much I can do and enjoy,” she explains. “These events are fun, but not when attending them makes everything else not fun.”

There’s a reason time-blocking works so well, says productivity expert Kevin Kuse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management. “Because there are only 24 hours in the day, time-blocking forces you to be realistic and to say no to things that aren’t a priority,” he explains. “We can’t do it all, but we can usually do the things that align with our values. This reduces stress as we don’t have that feeling that we are ‘failing’ or drowning in our to-do’s.”

Set daily work goals. “Prioritize projects and set three objectives for each day,” says Moss. “Don’t make an overwhelming list that feels insurmountable — just slowly and steadily get through your plan.” Moss explains the science behind this approach, known as Snyder’s Hope Theory: “When we feel like we’re accomplishing daily goals at work, we increase our cognitive hope skills by building up a sense of agency. Our brains respond in kind and predict that we accomplish more and with more consistency.” The payoff: These steps increase engagement — and boost happiness and performance at work.

Make it a team effort. “It’s easy to get frustrated as your projects pile up toward the end of the year,” says Moss. Instead of looking inward to tackle your to-dos, she suggests banding together with coworkers to get it all done. “Increase team collaboration to get projects finished,” she says. “See who needs help and create a network of volunteers who can jump in to support each other at work.” Each moment of accomplishment will fuel the next — and give everyone something to feel grateful for.

Go to the company holiday party — or not. Moss, Preston, and Petrzela agree: Deciding to bail on your holiday party really depends on your office culture. You know best whether you’ll be missed (and if that your absence will count against you down the road). But before you blow it off, consider the upside of spending time with colleagues in a more casual, social setting. “Everyone should have a choice about participating in these types of work events,” says Moss. “But community and friendships are important — they can be the difference between loving or hating work.” If you’re dreading making small talk, Preston offers a few conversation starters: “Think about things you might share, and then ask others, ‘What are you most looking forward to this holiday season? What’s a magical holiday memory from your childhood?’ she suggests. “If someone shares of themselves, others usually do the same.”

Find your ballast. What keeps you stable and feeling like yourself? Listening to music? Reading? Dancing? For Preston, it’s physical activity — and that’s why her workouts are nonnegotiable. “Amidst the social whirlwind of this time of year, people let go of the things that energize them and give them stamina,” she says. Big mistake. Instead, she says, hang onto them now more than ever. “Know what those things are to you and reconnect to them,” she urges. “You might not be able to do them as fully as you want, but finding ways to fit them in is essential.”

Consider working between Christmas and the New Year. True, the office will be a ghost town. But, hey, the office will be a ghost town. More time for you to wrap up 2018 distraction-free and get set up for a productive 2019. “I love to work that week,” says Preston. “It’s nice to have that demarcation of the end of one year and the beginning of the next. You start the new year fresh and ready.”

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