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No Time, or Time to Say No? Changing Our Approach to the Holidays

Why we need to do less to enjoy the holidays more.

Key points

  • Although we often look forward to the holidays the extra work can seem overwhelming.
  • In the modern world the problem is often having more things to do than time to do them.
  • Since we can't add more hours to the day, our only recourse is to change our expectations.

Have you recently caught yourself thinking of the upcoming holidays with a mix of anticipation and dread? Certainly, the prospect of spending time with people we care about, savoring good food and exchanging gifts is attractive. But for most of us traveling, shopping, decorating, and cooking while juggling childcare, and our regular jobs and obligations can feel overwhelming. We tell ourselves we will rest after the celebrations end, but in reality, we may end up exhausted, and irritable before the holiday even arrives.

Of course, pushing to get things done in a short period of time isn’t a new problem. Even in pre-industrial societies there were seasons when people worked long hours to plant or harvest crops, hunt for food, or prepare the food to be stored for winter. But in those pre-electric days, there were also stretches of time when people had a lot of downtime, and perhaps even got bored by the lack of activity. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, we have maintained the attitude that you should “make hay while the sun shines” but have removed the compensatory rest periods since our modern sun never sets.

Due to electricity, we can continue working well after dark and use alarms to wake ourselves, even when we haven’t had enough sleep. We also have far more options for how to spend our time than people did in the past. From books, to television, to movies, to live shows there are always more stories, channels, and films than we can fit into our schedules. As a result, every time we make a choice about what to do, we are also aware of what we are missing. This fear of missing out can be so powerful that some people become paralyzed and do nothing while others push themselves to the point of exhaustion.

It doesn’t help that the system we rely on to manage our choices and experiences, the brain, largely evolved under the old rules. A structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, deep in the brain, is sensitive to light/dark signals from our eyes and regulates our circadian rhythm. Everything from how alert or hungry we are, our reaction times, our body temperature and our hormones are dependent on this circadian clock. But our lifestyles often play havoc with our brain’s timekeeper as we ignore our brain's need for sleep and end up functioning less efficiently while experiencing emotional lability and fatigue.

Our perception of time isn’t solely a function of our circadian cycles. A number of structures in the brain contribute to how we perceive and process time in the context of our ongoing thoughts and attitudes, and the situations we are dealing with. When we are bored or uncomfortable, time goes very slowly. When we are trying to do multiple things at once it can appear to fly. When we are doing something we really love we lose all sense of the passage of time. Cultural factors influence time perception as well. A psychologist named Robert Levine conducted studies of time across multiple cultures, and countries, and found variations in how fast people speak, walk, expect to wait for others, and adhere to clock time or the mechanical tracking of time as opposed to focusing on natural markers of time such as the sun rising and setting.

So how are modern Americans, living in a world awash with light, sensory information, entertainment options, expectations, clocks and deadlines supposed to keep up with their many obligations, while still managing their physical and mental health? The key doesn’t lie in buying a new planner, working to cram more into your day or skipping sleep to “catch up.” Instead, we need to work to reduce our expectations about what we can and need to do. The phenomenon some are calling "quiet quitting" may be an effort to do just that. People across multiple employment fields have decided to stop working overtime to meet unrealistic achievement goals. Following the pandemic-induced quarantines, most of us experienced a sense of disorientation when entertainment options we took for granted such as movies, restaurants, sporting events, and theaters suddenly went dark. However, many of us also enjoyed the sudden quiet, and choosing not to go back to the frantic pace we maintained before the pandemic.

But when it comes to the holidays, saying we are going to slow down and doing it are two different things. The commercial pressures on us to keep up with the latest trends, the desire to provide our kids with magic moments, or to create or recreate our own meaningful experiences can lead to feelings of exhaustion, disappointment, resentment, and anger, none of which contribute to joyful holiday celebrations. Perhaps this is the year to talk honestly with the people around you. Do your colleagues really want an office party, or is it seen as an obligation? Can you band together with other people in your workplace to change the expectation that you have to answer emails after hours, or pick up shifts when someone else calls in sick?

What holiday traditions do the members of your family truly value, and what would they give up? Can you divide the list of things that need to get done so that everyone contributes? What if you decided you wanted to rest and take things more slowly rather than unpacking every ornament in the attic? Do you have to see everyone you care about on Christmas, or could you spread the visits over a longer period of time so you can enjoy each one? Since we can’t add more time to a day, the goal is to stop spending more time preparing for the holidays than enjoying them. When we make more deliberate choices about how we spend the time we have, we are less likely to lament the passing of that time.


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