Evaluate, Prioritize, Schedule to Reduce Holiday Stress

Ho, ho, ho! My first glimpse at a bountiful display of Christmas goods a full month ago reminded me that it was — is — time to plan for Thanksgiving and the Yuletide. But even if you don’t celebrate those, I hope the following ideas will help you prepare for any major holiday, family activity or milestone event: a graduation or retirement party, wedding or wedding shower, bar or bat mitzvah or quinceañera, family reunion or vacation, Easter or Halloween, anniversary or birthday celebration, or just about any other festivity that’s important to you and the special people in your life.

Often these occasions are mixed blessings — blends of excitement and anxiety, happiness and being overwhelmed — but if you follow my Evaluate, Prioritize, Schedule (EPS) system, I believe you can reduce the stress, time, effort and money that you spend on such affairs. I hope it starts to make the difference between enjoying and finding more meaning in the occasion and merely waiting, exhausted, for it to end.


In order to improve or simplify something, you must thoroughly understand what you’re doing in the first place. Start by making a list of all the activities and traditions that you normally do (or plan to do if it’s a new event) to carry out the holiday or occasion. Include the big and the small, the favorite elements and the ones you’d rather forget.

Then take a critical look at this list and ask yourself which elements you truly want to continue. Have some lost their luster or meaning? Have some become too expensive or stressful? Which ones make you feel happy and fulfilled, and which are just a big hassle?

Open up the evaluation to everyone else who participates in these events with you. Which are their favorite elements? How emotionally attached are they to each one? Although it’s tempting to make all the decisions by yourself, there may be traditions or rituals that are important to honor for the sake of others, and you need to know which ones those are. 

The bottom line is this: Compare the joy that you and others receive to the effort, time and money you spend.


Prioritization is crucial because if you don’t know what’s most important, you may end up focusing on the lesser things while missing out on the big hitters. Humans also tend to want to do everything, but what physical or emotional toll would doing everything take, even if we managed to succeed at it?

It’s hard to be objective about rituals and traditions because they’re steeped in history and nostalgia, so again during this EPS step, ask others what they think is most important. (The good news is that you may already have eliminated some elements that no one particularly liked during the Evaluate phase, so the list of holiday or event activities may now be smaller.) Then boil down your list to, say, five absolute favorites and concentrate on those. 

Each person should hold on to his/her own most-cherished aspect while some of the others are allowed to fade — at least for now. In the future, maybe preferences and priorities will change, but to start, choose what offers the most pleasure and meaning right now, and drop what has become burdensome or overwhelming.

Schedule these priority elements

Break all of the big tasks into smaller components, and get commitments about who will do each one. (Hint: It doesn’t have to be you!) Then work backward from the event or target dates to schedule the components.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth choosing a time when you’ll do it and recording it in your planner of choice. Scheduling may seem boring, contrived or “counterfestive,” but it’s essential to ensuring that the activities you care about actually happen and in ways that don’t leave you drained. And if something is not worth scheduling, take that as a sign that you may not want or need to do it after all — and that’s okay

To help with scheduling, work through the five Ds:

• If someone is adamant about an aspect of the holiday or event that you don’t particularly care about, delegate! Let’s say your friends pout because you don’t want to host your traditional July Fourth picnic (or deal with the big grocery bill, cleaning and food preparation). Ask them to host it at their house instead or to at least provide all the food for a potluck (with a full clean-up afterward) at your house.

• Do you like the holiday or event but just wish it didn’t require so much of you? Diminish it by taking a shortcut that allows you to enjoy the activity but doesn’t exhaust you. Could you, for instance, buy handmade holiday gifts at a craft fair in July rather than making them yourself in December? Or could you make charitable donations as birthday and anniversary gifts instead of engaging in time-consuming shopping excursions?

• Could you delay something? Perhaps you could host your typically annual New Year’s Eve soirée every other year, or drive to Aunt Mabel’s house — seven hours away — during the summer rather than on the night before Thanksgiving.

• The Schedule stage of EPS offers you a chance to reconsider your earlier decisions and delete something: to turn back before you commit. For example, could you end some of your Christmas-gift exchanges — period? Or enjoy your neighbor’s Halloween light-and-pumpkin display rather than creating your own? Or decline an invitation to a wedding shower but share in the couple’s joy at the wedding?

• And what about the things that really do have meaning and value? Do them with happiness and abandon!

Daily life doesn’t slow down to make way for special occasions, so everything you do to prepare for them is on top of everything else you’re already doing. That’s why carefully evaluating your preparations for the 2019 holiday season (and all year long), prioritizing what you and others truly care about, scheduling the high-priority aspects as early as you can, and implementing them well before the event will reduce your stress. 

But does this more minimalist, calculated, carefully planned EPS approach to the holiday season make you the Grinch? I don’t think so — and it probably won’t leave you exhausted, broke or resentful come January.

Obviously, do what’s right for you. If you love and want to participate in every aspect of Christmas — or any other holiday or special occasion — go for it! Just be sure to evaluate all of the components to make certain that you still love them all; prioritize your favorites in case you run short of time, energy or money; and schedule all that you cherish to ensure that it really happens.

The EPS system is about leaving behind what you and others no longer love to create plenty of time and energy for the activities, rituals and traditions that you do love. May all of your holidays and special occasions be low-stress and full of simplicity and good cheer!

Paula Apfelbach, the former owner of Breathing Room Professional Organizing in Madison, is now the copy editor at the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living magazine.