Surviving the Holidays

What’s the first Christmas present you really, really wished for as a kid? Is there one special toy that still makes you feel nostalgic?

The answer will depend on your generation. Some of us wanted a talking doll or an electric train set. Others wanted a video game or cell phone. To some degree, we can all relate to 9-year-old Ralphie who obsessed over a Red Ryder BB gun (and not a football) in A Christmas Story.

Regardless of our age or background, we still have dreams, wishes, and expectations for the upcoming season of giving. But one thing nobody wants under their tree is big box of stress, pressure, and burnout.

How did things get so frantic?

When I was growing up, the Christmas season officially began with the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was a comforting tradition. Like clockwork, Santa would end the parade by riding in on his sleigh, and the stores would open, unveiling their holiday decorations and tempting displays of merchandise on the day after Thanksgiving.

Now they all go up the day after Halloween.

Amazingly, big-box stores actually start selling artificial trees, light-up Santas, and inflatable Grinches in September. The deals you can’t refuse are rolled out long before the first snowfall. That’s the nature of retail, and it’s tough (but not impossible) to avoid being caught up in the frenzy.

Over the years, fierce competition for seasonal gift spending has spawned the unofficial “holiday” called Black Friday.

An article in USA Today explains the odd name for the event. “The term Black Friday goes back to ensuring that retailers would be able to finish the year in the black with strong profits versus in the red,” says Angeli Gianchandani, Brand Marketing head at the Pompea College of Business.

Here’s where it gets scary. Gianchandani reports that the concept of Black Friday is now getting phased out—and being replaced with “Black November” as retailers hope to capture sales throughout all of November by beginning their advertising blitz even sooner.

And it’s no wonder. By Black Friday, a whopping 29 percent of consumers have already completed a significant portion of their holiday shopping.

With deep discounts offered by brick-and-mortar retailers, it’s hard to hang onto your wallet. But it may be even harder to resist the lure of cyber sales. Since the pandemic taught us to rely even more on e-commerce, over 25 percent of holiday shopping now happens online. Even Santa didn’t see that coming.

Stressed for success?

Whether you’re searching for that last parking spot at the mall or the lowest prices on Amazon, you can end up exhausted. But the clamor to spend early and often is only one of the stress factors built into the holidays. The pressure of family gatherings, office parties, travel, and entertaining can drain you. And all these extra duties and obligations are in addition to your responsibilities of leading your team in the critical fourth quarter.

According to a Healthline survey, 44 percent of people say they are stressed out during the holidays. Half the respondents cited finances as the main culprit for their tension, while being over-scheduled, choosing the right gifts, and remaining healthy also contributed to holiday anxiety.

Are you surprised that being “over-scheduled” made the list? Me neither.

At this time of year, both leaders and employees are often dealing with shortened deadlines, meeting expectations for the end of the fiscal year, and, of course, coping with stressed-out customers and vendors.

Today, I humbly submit a powerful, age-old idea that can help leaders at any level survive the season…

How to opt out of the avalanche.

For many leaders—especially in this season of extra busyness—it’s easy to slip into patterns of being overworked and overcommitted, often at the expense of our own inner peace, happiness and physical well-being.

Let’s start by considering your recent personal interactions at work:

  • Are your meetings and lunches relaxed or rushed?
  • Are your office conversations meaningful or superficial?
  • Do you prioritize face-to-face time with peers and team members or do you find reasons to avoid seeing people?

I know plenty of well-meaning executives who’re running so fast and hard they’re at risk of collapsing literally or figuratively. Their frantic pace means bad consequences for those they’re leading and for their families, too. If you’re working and striving just to “make it through the holidays,” let me suggest a way to slow down, catch your breath and enjoy the season.

This isn’t a religious blog, but let me propose something the Jewish people have been doing since the days of Moses. Of course, I’m talking about the “sabbath” principle, and it’s the key to well-being and sustainability.

The Hebrew word shabbat literally translates “to rest.”

Basically, it means regularly setting aside 24 hours to do what brings us joy in life and what restores our soul. Traditionally, the Jewish sabbath was observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. During that time, no work was to be done. That in itself would be a big benefit for most of us; all leaders need to take time and step away from their labors.

But that’s only the beginning. My advice is to pick any day of the week and make it a period of rest, reflection, and celebration. Shape your personal sabbath experience into a purposeful time of self-examination and realignment of your vision and values. That may involve reading, napping, praying, meditating, journaling or simply taking a walk.

There are no rules about which restful activity (or inactivity) that best recharges your soul!

If you’re carrying more than you should this season, or trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, having a designated time for recharging and reflection may well give you the clarity and perspective you need to alter (and improve) your priorities as a leader.

Focusing on what matters most.

Running any organization is demanding, especially for business leaders expected to spur growth, increase profits, expand production, boost sales or all of the above. Worst of all, the pressure to perform never seems to stop. In today’s ultra-competitive work environment, the goal of living in balanced rhythms of work and rest feels impossible to attain. Achieving work-life balance seems especially implausible for leaders who carry the weight of what’s been called “nonstop responsibility.”

Nevertheless, I maintain it is possible—by adopting the practice of weekly sabbaths augmented by extended chunks of sabbatical time (perhaps monthly or quarterly). Most leaders I deal with are excellent at nurturing and protecting their teams, but could use help in attaining a more beneficial cycle of work, rest, and replenishment for themselves. Balancing these three elements will look different for every person, but finding the right ratio will fuel us and sustain us for the long haul of leadership.

Being a leader is a lot like running a race. And it resembles a marathon far more than a sprint. Effective leaders are “long-distance runners.” As we all know, being a good athlete requires training, endurance and discipline.

But it also requires sufficient rest.

Author and teacher Ruth Haley Barton is a proponent of the sabbath rest principle. She warns, “Because we do not rest, we lose our way… poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest.”

Get busy doing nothing.

Sometimes the smartest thing to do is doing nothing. And that’s doubly true when the frenzied pace of work and the constant pull of holiday activities are sapping our energy. Between now and New Year’s, I invite you to set aside time each week to intentionally accomplish nothing.

That won’t be as easy as it sounds. Here’s why. Most leaders are high achievers with a bias for action. In the back of their minds, a little voice is whispering, “The world will stop turning if you stop doing.” That’s an exaggeration perhaps, but doesn’t it ring true?

Many of us wear excessive busyness as a badge of honor. Ouch.

Be honest. At one time or another, most of us have felt, “I’m too important to take a break.” When the success of our organization seems to depend on us, it’s natural to feel that we’re too essential to remove ourselves voluntarily from the center of activity, even for a short time.

News flash: They’ll probably get along just fine without us.

Allow me to dig a little deeper. Some of us are victims of an inner mantra that’s operating inside us. We’re probably not consciously aware of it, but it goes something like this: If I rest, I won’t be productive. If I’m not productive, I’m not valuable. If I’m not valuable, I’m not irreplaceable.

If you’re tempted to feel that way, let me relieve you of a heavy burden. Whether you’re CEO of a huge business or the leader of a small group, you are not the product of what you did or didn’t do at work this week. Your self-worth is based on who you are as a person, not what you do on the job.

To begin embracing the idea of sabbath, ask yourself:

  • What do I need to stop doing in order to achieve the work/rest/ replenishment ratio that’s best for me?
  • What do I need to start doing to realign my heart with what matters most to me and my loved ones?

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe implementing a sabbath schedule seems silly. But trust me, building a block of rest into your weekly schedule will give you the kind of quiet strength that helps leaders continue moving forward without burning out physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Learning how to rest—even when people and events demand just the opposite—is a process, but taking the occasional break from running the universe is a journey that leads to joy.

And isn’t joy what this season is all about?

Dear Santa, please bring me…

Okay, fair is fair. I started this blog by asking you what your “most-wanted” Christmas gift was a kid. Here’s my childhood wish: Star Wars action figures, Death Star and X-Wing fighter (yeah, I’m a nerd)

If your wish list includes “better leadership skills” in 2023, I’d be honored to discuss how you and I can help your group set and reach new goals for the new year. Click here for a stress-free chat. Eggnog is optional.