7 ways to set effective boundaries during the holidays

Shopping, cooking, a million holiday parties. In order to get it done—and actually enjoy yourself—you’ll need to be extra ruthless about prioritizing the important things. Here’s how.

7 ways to set effective boundaries during the holidays
[Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash]

It’s touted as the most wonderful time of year, but for most professionals, it’s more like the most chaotic quarter of all. As time management expert and best-selling author Julie Morgenstern puts it, there is a stark contradiction between the image of the holidays as an all-relaxing, warm and fuzzy time, and the reality of the pressure coming from every direction.


“We still have our jobs, which often have increased end-of-year deadlines, and all the standard routines of running our personal and family lives—cooking, cleaning, laundry, errands, getting sleep, and so on,” she says. “Add to that the expectation to attend company holiday parties in addition to family and friends’ holiday parties and traditions, and it’s all too easy to run out of time to pause and enjoy the season.”

The key to allowing ourselves time to savor the time—without losing all sense of balance—is setting boundaries. And not just hard and fast rules, but realistic strategies you can put into practice . . . now. Here, a guide from experts:

Create a “must-do, can-wait” list

Sometimes, prioritizing isn’t as black-and-white as we would hope. Especially when there are 10 items lingering, all of which need to be completed, it can be hard to figure out what needs your attention ASAP. That’s why industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert Amy Cooper Hakim suggests taking a different approach: Instead of focusing on what you can take off your plate completely, restructure your focus and create a “must-do, can-wait” list.

Here’s how it works: On the left-hand side, write 10 deliverables (and 10 only!) you feel must be completed before the ball drops on January 1. Then, on the right side, write what can wait until January 2. As you can probably guess, you’ll see bullet points on the left that probably will be fine moved to the right. Hakim notes that sense of urgency can be deflated if we think critically about our workload—and if we’re brave enough to push back.

“When a new task lands on your desk, place it in one of the columns. If you feel that it belongs in the ‘must do’ column, be sure to move a less time-sensitive task to the ‘can wait’ column. Say to your boss, ‘In order to complete this task effectively and with quality, I’ll need to move another task to after the New Year,'” she suggests.


Think about what you actually need from the holidays

Even if you’ve been attending the same potluck with your cousins for the past decade, you aren’t obligated to show up with a casserole if you don’t have the time. Or—wait for it—if you don’t want to. The same goes for the annual holiday gift exchange in the office. Though you could participate, you aren’t required to throw on an ugly sweater and feign a smile when you’d rather take a long winter’s nap. Morgenstern recommends defining two to three events for your personal life and two to three for your professional, and decide those will be the only ones you give your energy and time to.

Think holistically about other tasks such as writing cards or decorating the house, says Morgenstern. And when you do decide what you’ll be contributing to various events, try not to overspend, since that can add another tier of anxiety. “Simple things like an evening out with friends, a fun excursion with your nearest and dearest, or a thoughtful, heartfelt note about how much you appreciate people who live further away, and making a plan to get together in the New Year will communicate what matters most—that you love and care for these people,” she says.

Use a calendar to block out obligations

You’ve heard of time-blocking before, and you may even use the Pomodoro method yourself. If you aren’t familiar, this practice outlines the schedule of your day, capitalizing on the hours when you’re the most productive, and giving your brain a rest when you’re lagging. Entrepreneur, founder of FemCity, and best-selling author Violette de Ayala recommends becoming even stricter with your day and evenings to protect your mental stamina. Since it’s tempting to be distracted and give up your restrictions, allow your calendar to dictate whether you say “yes” or “no.” “Be respectful of your time blocks and you will feel less overbooked and stressed when you do step away for a social and holiday outing,” she urges.

Executive career coach Elizabeth Pearson stresses the value of personal time, too. Your happiness and health during demanding seasons is often directly impacted by how much space you have to disconnect, recharge—and even vent to those you love. “As uncomfortable as it may feel, you’ll need to learn how to say ‘no’ graciously. You don’t have to take on every task you are given or accept every invite received,” she says. “When visible blocks of time are committed to personal projects, it will send a clear message to anyone with access to your calendar that you are equally busy during the holidays as any other time of year.”

Set an “end” time

There’s a difference between making an appearance at a cocktail reception for your client for 30 minutes and staying until the bar closes. One way to feel less frantic about everything on your plate is to give an end time to each event you attend, every meeting you set up, and every task on your list. Dr. Judy Ho, a triple-board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, says having this setup and perspective in advance gives us a sense of control and helps us remember there’s an exit plan in place. That way, while we’re in the thick of things, we won’t be nervous about the next deliverable ahead of us and can focus on the present.


Don’t stop sweating

Your health shouldn’t be last on your list of priorities in the sugar-filled, booze-heavy holiday circuit. Maintaining a balanced diet and scheduling time to get active may seem counterintuitive when you’re pushed to the max, but Morgenstern says it’ll give you a clearer perspective. And reserving this sort of time naturally creates an outlet for you to decline an invite.

Even if you can’t make it to the gym or your go-to workout class, putting one foot in front of the other is enough to regulate your system. “Consider making it a policy that you will go for a 10-minute walk after every holiday meal to keep the blood moving, and to stay in tune with your fitness goal,” she suggests.

Redirect the conversation

Setting boundaries during the holidays isn’t limited to meetings and parties but also includes our emotional and mental triggers. Many people are apprehensive about returning home for the holidays because of the annoying or inappropriate questions from loved ones. Dr. Ho recommends coming prepared with ways to redirect conversations and to hold your stance when you’re uncomfortable. “If a family member brings up a stressful topic that you’d rather not get into, gently inform them that you do not wish to talk about it and change the topic. If they continue to push, repeat yourself,” she says. “Do not allow yourself to get trapped into trying to justify why you don’t want to speak about it.”

Take a social media hiatus

If you struggle with FOMO, or you easily get trapped into the meme cycle, licensed marriage and family therapist Melody Li suggests taking a break until the new year. “Not only will that allow you to be more productive with work—you will also be more present with those you love and to save yourself from the temptation of jumping from one event to the next,” she says.