How to be productive over the holidays (if you are home with the kids)

img_2282In the usual narrative, work is stressful and holidays are relaxing. Therefore, attempting to be "productive" over the holidays is missing the whole point.

However, I know many of my readers are parents of small children. These small children do not disappear over the holidays. In fact, they are generally out of their usual schedules of school or daycare. Their presence means that holiday relaxation is not a given at all. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Not so fun trying to keep the toddler from leaping in with those chestnuts.

So there's that. Also, these parents — who spend the bulk of their time working or caring for children on normal days — want to make the most of their days off work, and so there arises a bit of pressure to achieve great holiday memories while simultaneously making progress on those house and personal projects that get shoved off because of work and kids.

In any case, I entirely understand the desire — expressed by several people who have written me over the past few days — to be productive over the holidays, or at least feel like the time was well spent. Unlike people without small children, you can't just wake up one morning and decide to do an intense house project or catch up on work without making arrangements (unless your spouse is really, really accommodating). The question is how to aim to spend the time without feeling either guilty or overwhelmed.

A few ideas. First, make a family fun list. These are activities that either make the season feel festive, or are the evergreen sorts of activities that you like to do together when you have time. Think museums, or indoor play places, or even outdoor activities if that's possible. But generally things that take about half a day.

Second, make a list of projects you'd like to tackle. Maybe this is stuff like buying (and setting up!) the IKEA couch in the basement. Be realistic. You could do 3 2-hour projects in a week. You will not redecorate the entire house. Putting that on the to-do list will just keep you from enjoying yourself.

Third, make an adult-fun list of things that you know will add to your energy levels. This could be things like workouts, date nights, novels you'd like to read, or friend get togethers. Stuff that will make it feel like a vacation for you.

Then, take a look at the time you have off, and figure out a rough schedule. A good rhythm with small kids could be a family activity in the morning, adult relaxation during nap time (or screen time if the kids don't nap anymore), and then alternating projects and shorter kid activities in the late afternoon. So, a day might feature a morning trip to the local children's museum, a grown-up workout and reading time during nap, and then a trip to get hot chocolate in the late afternoon. Or ice skating in the morning, downtime, then one parent takes kids to the library and the other assembles that sofa. Meet up for dinner somewhere (maybe a friend or relative's house!) Parents handling vacation time solo could aim for some late afternoon playdates in order to get downtime on occasion. I find late afternoon playdates are more helpful than morning ones. I have the enthusiasm to get through kid activities in the morning. It's 3:30 p.m. when things start going off the rails. Anyway, the idea is to have some anchor getting you out and about in the AM, and then one other semi-structured intention for the day.

We will be hosting some family, and for a while will have 8 children under the age of 10 here, so we shall see if this rhythm holds up for us, but that at least is the idea!

What kind of rhythm do you aim for over the holidays?

In other news: My friend Damon Brown, author of The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur, writes over at Inc about how to be massively productive over the holidays.

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10 Responses to How to be productive over the holidays (if you are home with the kids)


  1. Angela says:

    Laura, this was PERFECT!
    I often have the best intentions of being productive but my biggest hurdle is breaking things down into manageable tasks! I always have lists of wants, needs, and chores running through my head and often get too overwhelmed trying to plan everything smartly that I often plan nothing. Thanks for the exact ‘How To’! I don’t have vacation time planned for the upcoming holidays but I have been wanting to take a look at my goals for the next few months, this is so helpful : )
    Happy Holidays!

  2. Lindsey says:

    Thank you for this! I love the equal focus on kid, me, and ‘should do project’ time. Scary that the hardest list is what i should do for myself to make it feel like a vacation- clearly I need one! Thanks so much for all these nuggets!!

    • @Lindsey- you need a list! Hopefully it won’t be too hard to come up with some fun stuff!

  3. Erin says:

    This really is a perfect way to break down the days! I crush mornings but I am walking a fine line between extra coffee and where’s-the-wine by 3:30/4… We have 5 kids aged 1 to 11 and I just set the “big kids” on the task of making the vacation fun list. I will then work on creating a rough schedule so they know what to look forward to! I hadn’t thought of creating my own “fun list” – but I’m on it now. 😉

    • @Erin – definitely create your own fun list! That’s one way to escape some of the late afternoon malaise…

  4. Byrd says:

    This is amazing and perfectly timed. How did you know I was stressing over just this?

    I am also working on quarterly personal/work/relationship goals for next year and struggling with Too Many Things On The List.

    • angela says:

      me too, me too!

      Happy Holidays!

  5. beth says:

    I always come up with kid fun lists because I need the kids to burn off energy and I agree that mornings are excellent for this. It’s the afternoons that kill me. I am out of energy and the kids are often not at their best. Okay, they are fighting. Pretty much always. I always wish for quiet afternoons by myself, in my own house with no one else around. This is surprisingly hard to come by since my husband is working over the kids break. I think its time for me to realign my wishes with reality and think of something else fun for me!

  6. Diana says:

    This was great! I’m (pretty much) a full time SAHM but still like to relax extra this time of year and take advantage of some extra days my husband has off. We need to work on some fun lists of things our son would like to do too!

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