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The Key Tool You Need to Keep Holiday Stress at Bay

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One of many art projects last December

When it comes to opportunities for making memories and establishing family traditions, December is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. In an ideal December, I would select only the most delicious items from that huge spread and enter the new year feeling satisfied but not stuffed.

Unfortunately, that never happens. Of course I tell myself we don’t have to do *all the things.* We don’t HAVE to watch a Christmas movie as a family, drive around to look at lights (OB-viously while sipping homemade hot chocolate), make latkes the last night of Hanukkah, bake at least four different types of cookies in varying flavor profiles, string lights on the outside of the house, get family photos taken and send a card, make some new Pinterest-inspired ornaments, etc. But though I try to set reasonable limits, I invariably end up taking one of everything from the December buffet. I do *all the things.*

And that is why this year I’m debuting the MoSCoW method for our holiday season.

Nerd alert: this tool, pronounced “Moscow” like the city, is a prioritization technique typically used in management settings (I learned about it at a work conference a few years ago). The M, S, C, and W stand for “must do,” “should do,” “could do,” and “won’t do.” In past years, my approach to the holidays has essentially been to put everything on the must-do or should-do lists, and then feel stressed/guilty/disappointed when I don’t make it through all the shoulds. By separating possible activities into four different categories, one of which consists of things I explicitly WON’T do, I’m aiming to make December feel more joyful and less stressful.

Here’s an example of the MoSCoW approach in action. In my single and early married days, I loved making Christmas cookies. I didn’t bake all that much the rest of the year, but come December, I plowed through bags of flour and powdered sugar faster than you could say peanut butter blossom. But now I’m the cook in our family and have to feed all these people multiple meals and snacks every single stinking day. Since neither Mike nor my boys are into baking, making Christmas cookies would mean spending yet more of my time cooking and doing dishes. Noooooo, thank you.

Still, I’d been telling myself I’d probably need to bake at least two different types of cookies, one chosen by Evan and one by Nate, in order to avoid disappointment. I broached the subject with them. “If you had to choose between driving around to look at Christmas lights or making cookies, which would you pick?” Somewhat to my surprise, they chose lights. Same when cookies were weighed against a Christmas concert or watching Elf. It turns out my boys are totally fine as having cut-out sugar cookies with Grandma as their sole holiday baking activity. (Full disclosure, I did have to promise Evan, my little chocolate fiend, a batch of chocolate cookies with chocolate chips sometime in the new year, but that timing I can handle.)

I might still attempt a batch of peppermint Oreo truffles, my personal favorite, but I’m putting that on the could-do list. And when I think about it, if I have to choose between making truffles and another activity on that list, like watching Love Actually while snuggled under a quilt in my hyggekrog, we have a pretty clear winner. Hint: it does not involve melting white chocolate chips by microwaving them in 30-second intervals.

Even with paring back, our must-do list is already plenty long: put up a tree (of course we’re somehow short a string of lights and have been darting from one store to the next trying to match our existing ones), decorate the house (though only in my zones), buy gifts for the kids…those activities are fun and quintessentially December and have earned their spot on the must-do list. But added to the tasks of daily living, it can start to feel like a lot.

So that’s where my handy-dandy MoSCoW method is going to come into play. Here’s a sample. My actual list is much longer, but this gives you the idea:

Must DoShould DoCould DoWon’t Do
Put up a Christmas treeLights in front windowMake Oreo trufflesBake cookies (apart from cut-out sugar cookies with Mom)
Light menorahDrive around to look at Christmas lightsGo to a Christmas concert Make planters or fill window boxes with pine boughs*
Get gifts for the kidsAdvent calendarsGet family pics taken for holiday cardsDIY ornaments
*This one was so hard to let go of, but I know there would be a learning curve and shopping time, and just can’t do it this year. Hopefully in 2022!

It’s too soon to say for sure whether this new strategy will result in a more reasonable approach to the December buffet, but so far so good! It’s been a helpful reminder to me that just because we’ve done something in years past doesn’t mean we have to continue it indefinitely. Some traditions are hallowed; others turn out to be little more than extra work.

How do you prioritize what holiday activities you’ll do with your family? What steps do you take to avoid becoming a frazzled mess by December 20th? I’d love to hear your tips and thoughts in the comments section below. May we all find joy and balance this season.

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3 Comments

  1. I especially love that there is a won’t do column. (And personally glad to see your could do has the pic and card in it…. because that one never gets done at our house, but I’ve never actively chosen that…. just neglected it. Also! It alone could take up December! The outfits! The photographer! The cards and addressing and…. ) 😀

  2. I love this so much! I found myself getting overwhelmed after Thanksgiving thinking of all the December things to do (most of which are supposed to be fun) and then I realized none of them were things I actually had to do if I didn’t want to. It’s so freeing to realize we get to choose. I like how the Moscow formalized that.

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