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Last week was a mess. Last week I was a mess. Last week I made a mess … of just about everything.

In my defense, luck was not on my side. My husband went home ill from his job as a primary-school teacher for the first time in his 18-year career. My cat knocked a glass of water onto my phone and the phone died – for good. Five minutes into my daughter’s eighth birthday party one of her friends broke her arm on our trampoline.

While I can’t abdicate all responsibility for these events, for the most part I can chalk them up to misadventure, rather than missteps.

But losing the plot at my adored mother on her birthday?

Requiring three trips to the supermarket in the space of two hours because I kept forgetting to check my list?

Leaving my favourite jacket over a chair in a lecture theatre and not even realising I’d done so until days later?

They’re not just missteps. They’re glaring mistakes.

And they paint a very clear picture of an overwhelmed brain, an under-exercised body and the costs of both.

I know from grim experience that things tend to go pear-shaped at this time of year. With my mother’s, both my kids’ and my own birthday crammed into the six weeks before Christmas, a teacher husband (yes, I know things are hectic in every workplace at this time of year, but have you been to a rehearsal for a school Christmas concert?? Bedlam) and all the other joys of the festive season with which to contend, my sanity begins to feel, well, a little precarious once November rolls around.

And actually, I love Christmas. I love the traditional carols, I love decorating the tree, I love turkey leftovers. Which is why a few years ago, I decided that the annual ritual of careening towards the 25th at top speed and collapsing in a heap on the 26th had to stop. So I established my very own Bright Line Rules for Christmas.

The term bright line rules comes from the American legal system, in which it’s used to describe a clearly defined standard that aims to produce consistent and predictable results. Sure, prior to establishing bright line rules I was certainly achieving consistent and predictable results in the lead-up to Christmas, but not those that generated much festive cheer for anybody, least of all me. But I’ve found bright line rules to be incredibly useful in:

1) changing my behaviour for the better, and
2) conserving my cognitive energy.

Once I’ve established a bright line rule – for example, that I turn my light out by 10.20pm every night, I don’t spend precious time and attention having an internal debate night after night about whether I’ll watch just one more episode of The Staircase. It’s a given that it will have to wait until tomorrow night because the rule says so. Thus, the bright line rule ensures that the decisions I make for Future Me while in a rational, reflective mental state take preference over the decisions I make for Present Me while in an exhausted, overwhelmed state. No prizes for guessing which Me tends to make better decisions.

When establishing my pre-Christmas rules, I asked myself three questions.

What do I need to do in November/December to:
1) be the person I want to be?
2) elicit some pleasure from the festive season?
3) fulfill the responsibilities of the various roles in my life (business partner/business owner/parent/partner/friend/daughter/daughter-in-law/community member etc.)?

As is often – perhaps even usually – the case, my instant responses to these questions were not very helpful. For instance, off the top of my head the person I want to be is someone who makes mince pies with her children using her grandmother’s recipe, who hosts a festive drinks party for huge quantities of friends and volunteers to do Christmas craft at her children’s school.

But neither of my kids like mince pies, the last thing my friends need for Christmas is another invitation and I’ve made enough stars out of paddle-pop sticks and glitter to last me a lifetime.

So I had to slooowwww dowwwnnn my thinking. Yes, this is really really hard to do in the 21st Century, when the button on life’s remote seems to be stuck on fast forward, but I cannot understate its importance in thinking and doing better. I won’t bore you with the details of how I eventually landed on my four bright line rules, but here they are. (NB: While I strongly recommend the establishment of bright line rules, the specifics will depend entirely on your responses to the questions above … or perhaps even to different questions that are better suited to your circumstances/values/priorities.)

1. Purchase gifts only for immediately family.
In our family my husband and I buy for a maximum of 6 people, including our children and parents. My husband buys for his parents and the nephew on his side, I buy for the niece and nephew on my side, and we both enjoy selecting gifts for our two children. We don’t even give to each other or our siblings, which keeps Santa’s list simple and our bank account in the black.

2. Enjoy no more than one social event on Christmas Day
I know this is a tough one for many, but on the few occasions when I’ve tried to squeeze in more than one gathering on the 25th December, I’ve been stressed by the preparation (more food prep, more negotiations, less ‘play it be ear’), the execution (more time in the car, less time on the couch eating chocolate) and the aftermath (‘Why the @#$ didn’t I do any of the Christmassy things I love on Christmas Day!!’).

3. Book no more than one workshop/speaking gig per day and no more than three per week
Throughout the year I’m usually pretty flexible about what I take on when, because I have the luxury of being able to schedule an office-based week before and after any week that’s chockfull of workshops. But there’s just TOO MUCH GOING ON to risk it in November and December. 

4. Always respond to the suggestion to ‘catch up before Christmas’ with ‘why don’t we lock in a time in January or February instead?’
Christmas is an artificial deadline. Ignore it.

So what went wrong last week?

It all started several months ago, when I broke rule #3 by agreeing to do a keynote and a 5-hour workshop on Tuesday of last week. Then on Monday of last week, I offered not only to attend, but to host two meals on Christmas Day, thus consigning rule #2 to the dustbin. Due to my seasonal fixation with festive food, that error inevitably resulted in a sleepless night mulling over menu plans and seating arrangements.

The ensuing exhaustion set the scene for ditching rule #4 on Wednesday, when I said ‘yes, I’d love to’ in response to an impromptu invitation to lunch … so instead of arriving at my mother’s birthday celebration with fresh flowers, a bottle of bubbles and a warm smile, I turned up with hungry children, a headache and a very bad mood.

Your bright line rules for surviving Christmas may be quite different from mine. But whoever you want to be, and whatever you want to experience during the festive season, give yourself the gift of clarity by establishing bright line rules. And (let this tale be a warning to you …) sticking to them.