“The greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.” - William James
Christmas is in the air. It smells like cinnamon and panic. It starts with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, then decorating, concerts, work parties, friend parties, shopping, travel, Pre-Christmas Eve Eve, Christmas Eve, two houses on the day of . . . Breathe. Launch New Years. You get the idea.
Google the words “Simple” with “Holiday” and choose from one of thousands of articles about cutting back on crazy. The takeaways are all the same: decrease expectations, stop worrying and a say no. But obviously, since these articles get so much attention year over year, everyone is reading and few are heeding the advice.
Why not? Here’s a theory. Perhaps it’s related to this study by researchers that found it takes at least 18 days, at best, to change a habit and 254 days at worst. Considering the brevity of the season, it’s no wonder we all go on autopilot. Not to mention researchers also agree that you need a plan to bust out of the ever-running, automated habits we use when we run against the same experiences. And, “make the holiday less crazy,” is not actually a plan.
We’re in the camp of University of Texas Psychology Researcher, Art Markman, who believes you can’t break bad habits, you have to replace them. You can’t focus effectively on not acting or negative doing, but instead need to replace the old action with new action.
He says, “The reason [just stopping bad habits] is a problem is because your habit-learning system is an active system. It wants to associate behaviors with the environment. If you say I don’t want to do something, then what you’re doing is focusing yourself on not acting.”
Taking back December can’t only be about the “Nots and No Thank Yous” of the season. The key is making a new plan to replace those status quo habits. So, what is it YOU want out of the holidays? There’s no wrong answer. Pick YOUR reason for the season and then make your plan of new habits which embrace, preserve and protect that reason.
Here is an example to get you started. Let’s say you’ve decided to value Simplicity:
Old Habit: You go to a string of holiday events, one each weekend day and some in between, from Thanksgiving to New Years.
New Habit: Pick the 3 you really love and put restful activities on the calendar instead to fill open days where you used to go out. That will make resting purposeful and excuses valid. As in, “Sorry Grandma, can’t go to the tree and craft fair, me and the kids are having a staycation with old Christmas videos this weekend.”
Old Habit: Get an invite to a party. Go to party because you wouldn’t want to make anyone upset.
New Habit: Plan lunch dates with the people you actually care about and want to see in December (or invite them to join you on your 2-3 experiences). Turn down parties (see excuses via scheduled relaxation in above new habit).
Old Habit: Take and send a Christmas Picture with the grumpy, dressed up family in a card with a letter mailed to every relative and friend in the phone contacts list.
New Habit: Post a summer family photo on FaceBook and let people know that this is your X-mas card this year and you still love everyone but are cutting back. If you feel bad, send said summer photo to the 6 really old relatives not on Facebook.
Old Habit: Buying gifts and wrapping them beautifully for everyone in your extended family.
New Habit: Be the person to say what everyone secretly wishes. That the gifts should just be for the kids. Or suggest implementing name draws on family gifts vs. getting gifts for all. If that’s a no go, Walgreens has gift cards and everyone over 20 can get the same one, same denomination, in a card or gift bag. Trust us, no one over 20 really cares.
Old Habit: Going to family gatherings from start to finish and bringing tons of homemade food to share.
New Habit: Park on the street and set a time limit for your own sanity. Make your excuse ahead (dog needs to go out, food poisoning, etc.) Bring store bought / bakery made items. Professionals make things just as well as you do.
Ultimately, you can decide to prioritize what matters to you. Once you know what you want, you can create your new way of doing the holidays, and then work the plan. Research indicates it might take a few seasons to get the new habits really ingrained, but it’s worth it. You don’t have to give December over to an unknown holiday force. It’s 31 days of your life. Take back December.