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The Mental Load: Holiday Survival Guide for the Time-Crunched Professional

As year-end approaches, many of you are undoubtedly feeling equal parts cheer and….mind-blowing stress.

As if keeping your usual responsibilities in check wasn’t already enough to make you feel like you’re walking a daily tightrope, we’ve now reached the lovely time of year where we get to add on innumerable extras. Like finding an outfit for the office party that simultaneously conveys professionalism and a touch of festive glitz; ensuring the Elf of the Shelf doesn’t inadvertently arrive a day later than precisely the same day she flew into town last year (don’t think for a second that three-year-old children of lawyers aren’t tracking these things!); procuring the perfect photo for your family holiday card (then ordering, addressing, and mailing said cards before even the ones with new year’s greetings become obsolete); finding (and financing) the perfect presents for each family member, colleague, and client; hosting and visiting family and friends; and did I mention still trying to kill it at work?

Overwhelm doesn’t begin to describe it, am I right? The mental load, if not already crushing, can snuff out even the most glowing holiday spirit. Although it shouldn’t be this way, as with “the rest of the year”, the burden of making holidays magical falls disproportionately on women.

Apart from planning ahead (which I don’t need to drive home to this audience – you already know to buy menorah candles in October and have probably had a stash of gifts hidden somewhere since July), you can follow some simple guidelines to navigate the holiday season without emerging in January feeling like you’ve been run over by a one-horse-open-sleigh:

Reflect upon the source of all holiday-related expectations.  

Take a step back and reflect upon why you’re feeling pressured to cross off each task on your to-do list. Those pesky holiday cards are a prime example – they’re nothing more than a really expensive and time-consuming version of the societal pressure to portray your life as Instagram-worthy perfection.

If you’re feeling obliged to attend multiple family and social events, are you going because you enjoy them, or because you feel like you’ll be letting others down if you don’t show up? I love my parents, but a few of my best Christmases were those during law school when I decided to forego an obligatory trip home for the holidays and simply relax with friends and recuperate from finals by laying on the beach (it helps if you go to law school in Miami, but you get the point!).

And does anyone really care if your gift-wrapping skills aren’t on par with those of Taylor Swift? This time of year, with respect to anything that you determine is an outside expectation (excepting perhaps the expectations of your children, if you genuinely prioritize “making the magic happen”), give yourself permission to take a pass or scale back to manageable proportions.

Adjust your plans to meet only the expectations which are realistic and truly important to you.

Once you’ve taken stock of whether you’re acting in accordance with external (or even self-imposed but unrealistic or unimportant) expectations, cut back and outsource everything that isn’t critical. I’ll use my own holiday card as an example. Last year, I somehow captured a photo of my two kids together on our front porch donning trendy wintery outfits (which of course were never worn again), holding hands in front of our seasonal greenery and lights. Even the dog cooperated and sat politely next to the smiling siblings, gazing adoringly at the camera. In hindsight, it was truly a holiday miracle.

This year, no such luck – the dog is about four months overdue for grooming and my two-year-old refuses to look at a camera unless it’s for a close-up selfie with his tongue sticking out. So I dug up a semi-decent picture of the 2 kids, ordered a card from the website with the best coupon rather than the shimmeriest shimmer cardstock, and moved on. Creating and sending a card is still important to me because I think it’s a nice gesture and I like having an annual family memento. But I realized that the pressure to send out something picture-perfect is an outside expectation, and decided the whole card thing is a “good is good enough” endeavor for me.

You might even decide you don’t care about doing cards (or another holiday “must”) at all - and I’ll bet you exactly zero people will notice (and if they do, guess what - they’ll get over it!).

Take time for self-care.

I can already hear the staunch Type-A’s groaning at this suggestion. Trust me, I’m as critical as anyone of the prolific “self-care” advice. But when you’re navigating so many things, putting yourself first can be the difference between a harrowing holiday and a happy one.

“Self-care” doesn’t have to mean carving out extra hours from your already jam-packed schedule to go to a spa and feign relaxation while your mile-long to-do list runs through your head. Merely giving yourself permission to be less than perfect, to let go of the things that you don’t truly prioritize, or to indulge in a few too many cookies and save the gym for January can all be forms of self-care.

Buy something for yourself when you’re braving the last-minute rush at the mall. Hire someone to hang up the outdoor lights or shovel snow. Save yourself an all-nighter and order plain sugar cookies (you're welcome for that link) to decorate with your kids instead of baking them from scratch.

Self-care can also mean taking a time-out to volunteer or put together a donation for a charity that will help you put all the madness in perspective. The point is to get in little breaks (actual or mental) and be kind to yourself in the same way you’re spreading kindness to others.

Find opportunities for making new traditions – ones that are simpler and more meaningful.

In lieu of sending gifts to clients and colleagues, make a donation to your favorite charity and send a heartfelt card explaining the “gift”. Chances are, your clients will appreciate the gesture far more than goodies that will end up piled in a corner of the office kitchen. If your kids are past the age where being home to await Santa Claus’ arrival is the biggest thrill of the year, take off for a tropical vacation instead. If you decorate a tree but realize that you don’t really care if it’s Pinterest-worthy, make trimming the tree the kids’ job. They’ll likely remember that far more fondly than mom stressing out over whether the ornaments are evenly distributed. Change is good, and easy is even better!

Embrace the present (as in time, not gifts!).

This means two things to working parents around the holidays: (1) compartmentalize and (2) enjoy.

December probably isn’t the best time of year to set monumental career goals or embark on a new non-urgent undertaking, but there are year-end tasks that must be done, and most professionals don’t get more than a few days off despite the momentousness of the season. If you know that maintaining your professional pursuits is something you can’t let slip (hello, year-end closing rushes and holiday-induced legal emergencies!), compartmentalizing is more important now than any other time of year.

Even if you’re the queen of multitasking in an average month, it can become impossible to do that effectively in December given the sheer volume of tasks and events to juggle.  So when you’re at work, focus and make the most of your time. But use this time of year to pull out all the stops when it comes to setting boundaries, so that when you’re not at the office, you can truly set work aside and enjoy the time and people that are important to you. Happy holidays! 

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