12/20/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Getting Through the Holidays (Without Going Over the River and Through the Woods!)


There's a holiday song that says you have to go "over the river and through the woods" to get to Grandma's house. That seems like a lot of work to me and often, so do the holidays. I don't know about you, but whenever November arrives, I look toward the holidays with both joy and dread. I'm no Scrooge, but I find that it's so easy to be overwhelmed by the effort and the angst of preparing for the holidays at a time when I should be filled with joy, gratitude, and fun-ness.

But perhaps it doesn't have to be that way.

As of today, I have a to-do list that would rival Santa's. OK, it's not really that bad, but I'm stressed because I only have a few days to complete it.

The list includes the regulars. Cards, gifts, decorations, meal planning, grocery shopping, party going, and watching It's a Wonderful Life at least three times. I don't remember seeing my parents this busy during the holidays when I was a kid. Of course, I was more concerned about my gifts than what my parents were doing.

So, here's the thing. We have become so focused on the "doing" during holidays that we often neglect the "meaning" of the holidays. This frenetic busy-ness distracts us from the reason we're busy in the first place. I've often argued that Christmas should be more like Thanksgiving, when we're more focused on food and fellowship than all the shopping, decorating, gifting, and other "ings."

I think we have to change our perspective so that we don't all end up bitter, stressed out, and cyni-santa-cal (I made that up).

My business philosophy of "do it well, make it fun" means that we combine excellence and fun. Neither excludes the other, but they both work in tandem. And I believe this can apply to everything we do, including the holidays. So, here are my tips to keep you balanced during this season.

1. Take a minute to refocus on the reason for the season. Make sure you know why you're celebrating in the first place. This sometimes grounds us in what's really important.

2. Don't do it all. Just because you get invited to 14 parties doesn't mean you have to go to 14 parties. Pick the ones that are the most fun, the most fulfilling, or require the least preparation. Or simply avoid the parties that will include people who irritate you.

3. Don't do it all at once. The old adage of taking one day at a time is good throughout the year (even though that's not thinking one day at a time). If you do a little each day, it adds up. But if you try to do everything all at once, it can stress you out.

4. Consider changing traditions. Sometimes we overload ourselves with certain activities because "we've always done it that way." Some traditions are good and can give us a sense of purpose, stability, and comfort. But some cause us stress and can be eliminated. By the way, if one of your traditions is giving away fruitcakes, let me suggest you eliminate that one. Just saying.

5. Eat and drink in moderation. The holidays tempt us to consume too much. That's why we have an upsurge in gym memberships right after Jan. 1. It may taste good in the short run, but it can be a health problem in the long run. I love what Jack Lalanne said: "If it taste good, spit it out." Remember, if you don't have your health, you're dead.

6. Keep up your exercise routine. When things get busy, we tend to neglect our bodies. We were made to move, so we need regular exercise to stay healthy. As a friend of mine said, when I told her I didn't have time to exercise: "Do you have time for cancer? Do you have time for a heart attack?" Good point.

7. Focus on building relationships. Sometimes the holidays thrust us into the midst of friends and family with whom we may have strained relationships. While this is not easy, we are better served by focusing on building these relationships than what's not right with these relationships.

8. Find time for yourself. It's important to have me time during the holidays. This can be a nap, a bubble bath, or an hour with a good book. You can't be "on" all the time, and you will replenish quicker if you include some down time.

9. Do something fun every day. Watch a movie with friends or family, go on a walk, play charades, or throw snowballs at your neighbor's cat. Remember, a day without funshine is like a day without orange juice (or something like that).

10. Be thankful. We just finished Thanksgiving and yet, within a few weeks, we have forgotten what it was all about. When we're grateful for what we have rather than regretful for what we don't have, the world seems a bit brighter. Remember that gratitude affects your attitude. Plus, it rhymes, which is always a nice bonus.

11. Take responsibility. Unfortunately, nobody is going to make your holidays meaningful, bright, or joyous. That's up to you. But once you realize that, you can control more of the experience.

Chances are, the holidays are going to include some stress -- especially if you're dealing with illness, grief, or other serious life challenge. However, if you go into them by taking responsibility for what you can control, there's a good chance they will be more joy-filled.

For more by Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, click here.

For more on holiday stress, click here.