We live in a culture of perpetual busyness. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a Fortune 500 company or running a household — mounting anxiety and demanding schedules are equal-opportunity assailants. And, for many people, the “most wonderful time of the year” doubles as the “most stressful time of the year.” Between shopping, hosting, cooking and cleaning (and doing it all while sporting a jolly smile and an ironically ugly/genuinely itchy sweater), the holiday stress can turn even the most together among us into frazzled zombies.
If the holidays have ever left you feeling like the emotional equivalent of a melting snowman at the end of winter, know this: You are not alone. And also know this: There are ways to maintain your sanity and finish your holiday to-do list.
We talked to seven top executives about how they handle stress, manage their busiest days, kick butt and take names in the process. Here are 16 tips from CEOS, COOs and innovative entrepreneurs that you can apply to your own hectic life to beat the holiday overwhelm.
Tip 1: Prioritize sleep
When you’re drowning in a long to-do list, it’s tempting to burn the candle at both ends and sacrifice sleep in favor of getting just a little (or a lot) more done in one day. Of course, we all know it’s important to get in a solid eight hours every night, but we’re also all guilty of ignoring that sage advice from time to time. The most successful people, though — the ones who accomplish the most — take this basic life tip to heart.
“When I’m tired, everything feels harder, more stressful and generally ‘busier,’” says Russell Glass, the CEO of Ginger, a company that offers on-demand behavioral healthcare to people in need of emotional and mental health support. “I’ve had to sacrifice — watching almost no TV and reading fewer books — but it’s worth it to get the sleep I need to accomplish my daily tasks.”
“I have specific boundaries of things that are a deal-breaker for me,” she says. “Like, I always try to get at least eight hours of sleep. I definitely work hard to not be up all night working and going crazy.”
Remember when you were a kid and your parents decided it was time to teach you the value of a dollar? Maybe they did this with an allowance, maybe they made you balance the family checkbook for a month (thanks, Mom!), but whatever the method, the goal was the same: to help you understand that money is (for most of us, at least) a limited resource that needs to be used responsibly.
The same goes for time, but most of us don’t get a sitcom-worthy heart-to-heart to impart that lesson. The most successful humans all seem to have picked this tip up along the way, though, and have fully embraced it.
“Time is our most precious resource — be purposeful about how you use it,” Glass says, when asked to share the single best piece of advice he’s received.
Tip 3: Learn to respect yourself
Time is only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece? That’s you, and it’s vital to take the time to really learn about yourself and your work style if you’re going to get things done without having a stress-induced breakdown, especially during the holidays.
“Time management is basically working with yourself in order to get things done,” Chuck Runyon, CEO and co-founder of Anytime Fitness, explains. “This requires you to know yourself, meaning it’s critical you understand your work style, what distracts you and how to stay energized when things get incredibly busy.”
Tip 4: Establish a routine
Routines are great. They help us build habits and set expectations for our time. According to Beth Haggerty — a veteran digital media executive and serial entrepreneur who currently serves as the CEO of Declare, a community-driven platform dedicated to arming women with the tools and support to eradicate gender inequality — it’s ideal to strike a 70:30 balance with your schedule.
“I try to maintain as much routine in my scheduling as possible so that I am not scheduling anew each week,” she explains. “If 70 percent of my schedule is fairly routined, I can then leave the other 30 percent for unexpected and new areas to tackle. This routine includes meetings on the same day of the week, blocking my calendar to get other things done on the same day, workout routines, dinners at home. It does not always work perfectly, but it helps.”
Tip 5: Master time blocking
Time blocking is a strategy that came up again and again among the top performers interviewed for this article. Here’s the good news: Time blocking is pretty self-explanatory and easy to implement. All you have to do is be mindful about your time and schedule out blocks of time dedicated to accomplishing the items on your to-do list.
Sounds simple, right? Maybe too simple? If you’re thinking, “Duh, of course you have to plan time to do things to get said things done,” then, yeah, you’re right. But think about how you apply this concept in your own life around the holidays: Do you actually sit down and plan out the time you’ll spend on specific tasks? Or do you just generically block out time for work or errands? Are you strict with yourself (and other people) about keeping those times dedicated to the things you need to get done or do you answer texts/phone calls/Slacks/DMs during those times and let people “pop in” for a “quick question” that ends up derailing your schedule completely?
You know the meme-able saying: We all have the same number of hours in a day as Beyoncé. If we mere mortals want to make as much of our 24 hours as Queen Bey (or even approach her standard), we have to actively take control of our days.
“While I may be switching gears from one task to another often, it’s important to be present in each task, or else you’re wasting time,” Runyon says. “Blocking off sections of time for you to work on one project uninterrupted is essential to getting things done.”
And time blocking isn’t just for deep thought work sessions. When you start thinking of your day this way, you’ll find blocks to dedicate to (structured) downtime, too.
“If you’re go, go, go all day long, literally blocking off time to recharge during off hours is a vital,” Runyon adds. “Work will always be there in the morning, so take time to focus on yourself and your mental health by doing something you enjoy — or by doing nothing at all — and commit to it. You’ll find yourself returning to work more productive and with a clearer mind.”
Tip 6: Be present in every moment
One of the keys of time blocking is to make sure that you aren’t just setting aside time for a task, but that you’re focusing fully on that task during its allotted time. This rule applies to the stressful, just-have-to-get-through-them items on your to-do list and to the downtime that’s key to keeping anxiety under control.
“Just as I focus and am present when it comes to blocking off time to complete work tasks, I owe it to my family to do the same,” Runyon says. “When I’m at a soccer game, a family party or parent-teacher conferences, I am present, aware and engaged. I find that because of this — even though I work long hours — I still have an incredibly close connection with my family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Eric S Yuan, CEO and founder of Zoom Video Communications, agrees, also citing his kids’ sporting events as a perfect example of a “no work allowed” time.
“I think it is important to keep commitments and be present where you are,” he says. “If I’m at work, I’m working. If I say I’m going to leave early to go to my son’s basketball game, I’m going to do that, and I’m going to be really present, not checking my phone during the game.”
Having a mile-long to-do list isn’t just overwhelming, it’s not particularly useful. If you really want to maximize your productivity potential and manage your time effectively, you need to whittle that long to-do list down to your top priorities.
“Write down three ‘must dos’ each day,” Haggerty suggests. “No matter what, you have to get these done. It pushes you to focus you on what is most important and will return the most value among the long list of to-dos.”
The top three rule doesn’t just apply to work-related tasks or mindless errands. Sun Basket CEO and co-founder, Adam Zbar, says he applies the same standard to managing his time at home, too.
“At both work and home, the key I find to time and stress management is not trying to do too many things at once, but rather selecting two or three of the most important things you want to do together as a family — going on a hike together, taking the time at the park that my son loves — and totally being in the moment during that time.”
Tip 8: Never procrastinate decisions
When you’re busy, it’s easy for the new requests to pile up without even getting a reply, let alone any progress. According to WorkWave COO, David Giannetto, who spent four years as an officer in the U.S. Army before transitioning into his current tech role, delaying decisions (even if they aren’t the final decisions) is one of the biggest productivity killers people have to guard against.
“I try to follow the same method they teach you in the military: Look at something once and make a decision,” he says. “The first decision is whether or not this is important for you to be personally involved. If you do have to be involved, more than just giving your opinion, then you have to make a decision so that you don’t have to touch it again — not allowing yourself to delay decisions is key to keeping ahead of the backlog. You don’t have to make the final decision, but you have to move it along.”
Tip 9: Say no — a lot
When you’re a chronically busy person, it’s usually a sign that you’re doing something — honestly, probably a lot of things — right. The more you prove yourself, the more in demand you become. When you show that you’re dependable, friends and family lean on you more. When you show that you’re a rockstar at your job, clients and colleagues send more exciting opportunities your way.
It can be hard to say no. For some people, it even feels like a form of failure, as if “no” is always code for, “No, I can’t do that.” But the top performers know that “no” is just a necessary part of continuing to grow and thrive.
“It’s easy to say yes to everyone, because it makes everyone happy and making everyone happy is a great feeling,” Runyon says. “However, that feeling is short-lived as you soon realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. It took me years to hone this skill, but I will say that I never respond with an actual ‘no.’ Instead, I suggest someone else for the job, empower another employee to take the lead or offer a different deadline that’s more doable for me.”
Tip 10: Delegate, delegate, delegate
As Runyon points out, saying no doesn’t have to mean that the task in question doesn’t get done. Every top performer we talked to pointed to the importance of delegating tasks that can be done by other people on the team. In a corporate setting, the “team” means coworkers, but in your busy, harried life, it can mean being willing to ask for help from your family and friends to divide and conquer.
Johnson agrees and cites delegating as a key part of her strategy for managing the demands of a busy startup.
“I think it’s just that timeline and an understanding of deadlines for things and when certain things need to happen and then being able to delegate things that you shouldn’t be doing,” she says. “What’s really important is figuring out the chain of command and getting that organized within your life so that you’re not working on every single thing, so you can focus on the most important things.”
Zbar points out that delegating doesn’t just take stress away from you — it offers an opportunity and a chance for growth to someone else. Thinking of delegating from that perspective will help alleviate the guilt that so often comes with asking for help.
“Do I need to be the one who [does this] or is there someone else on the team who could do an even better job and would literally jump at the chance to have this new, exciting opportunity?” Zbar explains. “By empowering your team to be great, make decisions and represent your company to your most important customers and the public, you both create a much more motivated team and help best leverage your own time as well.”
Tip 11: Go easy on yourself
As anyone with a tendency to bite off more than they can chew knows, it’s easy to start to feel weighed down by not just the number of things on your plate, but by the feeling of personal responsibility to #DoItAll. This, however, is a recipe for anxiety and it’s a habit that you should work to break.
“My biggest challenge is I feel responsible for everything around me,” Giannetto says. “If someone in my personal life comes to me needing help, then I take it on as my responsibility to solve the problem for them. This adds a lot of stress and brings about greater time management issues, and can make it feel like I am constantly at work. So, for me it’s [about] trying to remember that it isn’t my responsibility to solve the problem. I can just help them the best I can and that’s OK.”
Tip 12: Meditate
You’ve heard it a million times at this point, but that’s just because it really works: Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools for maintaining (or reclaiming) your chill and increasing your focus.
“I’ve practiced mindfulness off and on for 20 years; however, in the last four years, I’ve given it increased priority,” Glass explains. “As the CEO of a company focused on helping people achieve their own behavioral health goals, it’s critical that I practice what we preach to all of our members. Aside from work stress, I believe mindfulness has led to the single biggest improvement in my relationship with my wife and in my ability to be a better, more patient father.”
Haggerty agrees and credits meditation with increasing her own productivity.
“I meditate daily, usually for 15-20 minutes in the morning,” she says. “My mind is overloaded and feels like I can’t think clearly. It’s been an incredible tool for me for both stress relief and being able to be more productive.”
As Runyon, who is also an avid meditator, points out, meditation doesn’t have to be the stereotypical version we tend to think about — it’s a flexible practice that you can tailor to your own lifestyle and personal taste.
“I think there’s a misconception that everyone that meditates is burning incense and sitting alone in a quiet room for hours at a time,” he says. “That’s not the case at all. In fact, meditation can be anything that helps you focus on your inner voice. It could be swimming laps, journaling, listening to some music without access to your phone. Whatever it is, do it — it’s backed by science and will no doubt help you approach life with a more positive outlook even on the toughest of days.”
If meditation — even in an unconventional form — just isn’t for you, you still need to find your own way to zen out and rid your mind and body of the stress that builds up when you have a million things on your plate.
“While I’ve tried meditation and other relaxation practices, I’ve found that I prefer movement versus being stationary as my way to relax myself,” Zbar says. “As such, I find that going for a one-hour run in the morning in the hills of Marin behind my home and watching the sunrise or going sea kayaking is what puts me at ease. Immersing myself in nature allows me to feel connected to a higher purpose and a larger design that puts in perspective my daily challenges and stresses.”
Tip 14: Set tech boundaries
Addicted to your smartphone and the little stream of dopamine hits it delivers via Instagram likes, text messages and email notifications? You’re clearly not alone, but even people who run entire companies need a break from time to time. And let’s be honest, if tech CEOs can be successful and take the occasional smartphone break, you can, too.
“My advice is to set boundaries — understanding that they can be quite different for everyone depending on their stage of life, etc.,” Glass says. For him, those boundaries include unplugging from devices during dedicated family time and never taking screens (or work stress) to bed.
If you don’t feel like taking a technology hiatus is possible, know that you don’t have to be off the grid forever or even without warning to make the break worthwhile.
“I encourage everyone to unplug, and it’s possible even when you’re busy,” Runyon says. “The key to unplugging for me is preparation. If I need to disconnect for a few hours, I shoot out an email to my team or a text to my family letting everyone know that I’m leaving my phone in another room and taking some time to myself.”
Tip 15: Don’t beat yourself up
Even expert to-do list annihilators have room for improvement and admit that they get anxious when they don’t strike that magical, elusive balance of “having it all.”
“I still struggle with balancing wanting to have fun with my kids and my work life,” Glass admits. “This can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress and just general impatience. However, by working through and acknowledging my feelings when it happens and not judging myself when I feel that way, I am getting a better handle on it.”
Tip 16: Don’t always be “on”
As much as you want to be a superhuman productivity machine, that’s just not possible. What’s more, reaching your max productivity potential involves a counterintuitive step: Taking time away from the to-do list (or whatever is stressing you out).
“Time off from work is crucial in order for me to be successful at my job. Research shows that brain function improves dramatically with time away,” Glass explains. “The leadership team at Ginger — myself included — strives to promote behavioral health wellness among our colleagues.”
And behavioral health wellness? That means at least occasionally doing the hard work of hardly working.
No time for your daily Starbucks run this holiday season? Don’t worry, we’ve got a healthier option to that classic pumpkin spice latte that you can make at home.