Why We Procrastinate with Holiday Obligations

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Every year I feel surprised that the holidays are suddenly descending on me and my family! My common sense should tell me, however, that it’s right there on the calendar and I could have noticed it back at the beginning of October to begin the process of readying for what was coming in just a few weeks. There’s something in me and I think in others that almost wants to deny that the holidays are coming because of what they involve and how they make us feel. I wrote a blog a few months ago about denial and in this blog I thought I’d get specific about some of the ways we engage in denial around the holidays.

While not everyone loves Thanksgiving, many people find it a less stressful holiday than Christmas or Hanukkah or any of the December holidays that involved decorating and gift giving. At least Thanksgiving focuses on being grateful and most of us get together with families to enjoy a delicious meal without the hassle of coming up with presents and major decorating. There can be challenges over who hosts Thanksgiving and when there are grown children who have new families that need turns and attention in the holiday visiting cycle.

With all holidays and special occasions there can be painful memories of issues and disappointments from the past. There also can be pressure by those in charge to make sure everyone is having fun, that they are getting the gifts they desire and feeling loved because of all that is being provided. The tyranny of perfectionism!! Those with these responsibilities we can worry that we might miss some detail or buying a special present for each person. And what if we accidentally miss gifting somebody? Overlooked their hints of what they wanted? For those of us who are insecure about our abilities to make the right decisions, we can feel very stressed by the pressure and expectations placed on us sometimes more by ourselves than by others. And sometimes there are some judgmental, critical family members who make it clear that they feel disappointed, let down by us.

Then there are the unfair expectations of children and young people who don’t understand the economics around paying for all the expensive gifts often promoted on television ads and on social media. There are the newest and greatest phones and other forms of technology that promote a kind of greed and need to have all the newest bells and whistles. You’ve probably seen the commercials where a spouse gives another a new car! Some of these expectations and pressures are why we put off thinking about and planning for the holidays because we dread getting into all that.

For some families there are so many stresses around where children will spend the holidays if there has been a divorce or separation. Negotiating all that can be extremely painful and frustrating. It can prevent people from experiencing the joy of the holidays and instead experience feeling sadness, despair and even bitterness.

What can we do to reduce some of this frustration and tendency to procrastinate, which of course eventually makes the stress so much worse?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make lists. These can be lists of tasks with deadlines. Or lists of gifts that need to be purchased. It can be a good idea to hang onto lists so that you have them to refer to in the coming years.
  • Lower your standards. Appreciate that it is not your job to do everything perfectly. Sometimes people get frantic about cleaning their houses from top to bottom. It may be worth it to pay someone to come in and do cleaning. It is okay to do superficial cleaning rather than scrubbing walls and washing windows.
  • Ask for help. It is not fair that only one person has the responsibility for all that goes into making the holiday special. Have family meetings where you go over what is needed and make sure everyone has some responsibility for something, even if it is relatively simple. This promotes a sense of teamwork and the feelings of being a part of making the holidays successful.
  • Look for ways to have fun. Make sure you do things like play the music you enjoy, decorate in ways that bring you happiness. Don’t feel like you have to wrap everything but rather can use bags with tissue paper. I had to learn that I didn’t have to put out every decoration I owned but rather could choose from among my decorations and put the rest away for another year.
  • Invite family members to reflect on what they are enjoying, what they are wishing, other ways they might want to contribute. Celebrate that you are working as a team.
  • Work on ignoring those who are critical or shaming, including that inner voice. Sometimes the criticism and shaming is a cover-up for insecurity or shows the need to dominate others in order to feel powerful.
  • For many of us, the holidays are a way to celebrate our spiritual beliefs. It can be easy to get caught up in materialistic activities. While we can enjoy holidays in a secular way, those of us who see the holidays as a celebration of our faith may need to remind ourselves of what our priorities are and to put other things on hold in order to emphasize those.

Certainly there are legitimate reasons for procrastination around the holidays. We don’t need to beat ourselves up if we get caught up in postponing all that needs to be done because it’s so difficult to tackle everything. At the same time coming up with some strategies to get organized and finding ways to give ourselves permission to practice self-care and self-compassion can reduce some of our tendencies to procrastinate.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. What are some of your memories both from long ago and recently, of the responsibilities and pressures associated with the holidays? Which of these responsibilities and pressures were created by the outside world, the expectations of others, or your own insecurities and desires to make everything perfect?
  2. What are some of the ways you can reduce tendencies to procrastinate so you don’t feel so pressured, guilty or ashamed that you didn’t somehow “do a better job?”
  3. Which of the suggestions can you embrace? How do you think embracing them might help you?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute