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

Have you recently caught yourself thinking about the upcoming holiday season with a mix of anticipation and dread? Sure, the prospect of spending time with people we care about, enjoying good food, and exchanging gifts is appealing. But for most of us, traveling, shopping, decorating, and cooking while juggling childcare can make our regular jobs and commitments feel overwhelming. We tell ourselves that we will rest after the celebrations are over, but in reality we can get exhausted and irritable before the holiday arrives.

Of course, getting things done in a short period of time is not 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 food for winter. But in those pre-electric days, there were also periods when people had a lot of downtime and maybe even bored due to the lack of activity. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, we’ve maintained the attitude that you should “make hay while the sun shines” but have scrapped compensatory rests since our modern sun never sets.

Electricity allows us to work well in the dark and use alarms to wake ourselves up even if we haven’t had enough sleep. We also have a lot 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 movies 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 one fear missing out can be so powerful that some people become paralyzed and do nothing, while others drive themselves to the point of exhaustion.

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It doesn’t help that the system we rely on to manage our choices and experiences, the brain, has largely evolved according to the old rules. Deep in the brain, a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus 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 depend on this circadian clock. But our lifestyle often plays 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 is not just 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 face. When we are bored or uncomfortable, time moves very slowly. When we try to do several things at once, it can seem like it’s flying. When we do something we really love, we lose all sense of the passage of time. Cultural factors also influence time perception. A psychologist named Robert Levine researched time in multiple cultures and countries and found variations in how fast people speak, walk, expect to wait for others, and adhere to clock time or mechanical tracking of time rather than focusing on natural markers of time, like the rising and setting sun.

So how should modern Americans, living in a world flooded with light, sensory information, entertainment options, expectations, clocks, and deadlines, manage their many obligations while still managing their physical and mental health? The key isn’t buying a new planner, working to fit more into your day, or skipping sleep to “catch up.” Instead, we should work on lowering our expectations about what we can and should do. The phenomenon some call “stopping quietly” may be an attempt to do just that. People in multiple fields of work have decided to stop working overtime to achieve unrealistic performance goals. After the pandemic-induced quarantines, most of us experienced a sense of disorientation as entertainment options we took for granted, such as movies, restaurants, sporting events, and theaters, suddenly fell out. However, many of us also enjoyed the sudden calm and chose not to go back to the frenetic pace we maintained before the pandemic.

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But when it comes to the holidays, saying we’re going to slow down and doing it are two different things. The commercial pressure placed on us to keep up with the latest trends, the desire to give our children magical moments, or to create or recreate our own meaningful experiences can lead to feelings of exhaustion, disappointment, resentment and fury, none of which contribute to joyful holidays. Maybe this is the year to talk honestly to those around you. Do your colleagues really want a company party, or is it seen as an obligation? Can you work with other people in your workplace to change the expectation that you have to answer emails after hours or take over shifts if someone else calls in sick?

What holiday traditions do members of your family really value, and what would they give up? Can you divide the list of things to be done so that everyone contributes? What if you decide you want to rest and take it easy instead of unpacking every ornament in the attic? Do you have to see everyone you care about at Christmas, or can you spread the visits over a longer period of time so you can enjoy everyone? Since we can’t add more time to a day, the goal is not to spend more time preparing for the holidays than enjoying them. When we make more informed choices about how we spend the time we have, we are less likely to complain about the passing of that time.

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