Many of us have trouble staying focused at work on a regular day, but the holidays pose a special challenge for workplace productivity. In addition to the normal day-to-day distractions we face the rest of the year — like chatty coworkers, office drama, and, you know, the ENTIRE INTERNET — the holidays have the potential for all sorts of extra interruptions: Holiday parties, loads of candies and baked goods, coworkers taking more time off than usual, an infinite to-do list, presents to buy, endless (and endlessly annoying) holiday music, increased family obligations, and the persistent pull of knowing that soon you’ll have a day or two off. It’s a wonder anyone manages to get anything done.
Trying to stay focused on your work when holiday cheer is buzzing all around you may seem like a losing battle, but there are a few simple things your can do to keep yourself on task. Most important is to find a balance between work productivity and holiday fun. Of course, you can’t give yourself over entirely to sipping eggnog by the fire (IF ONLY), but if you try to deny the holidays altogether in favor of emptying your in-box, you’ll only find yourself more distracted.
Keep reading for 8 ways you can stay productive at work this season, despite the visions of sugarplums dancing in your head:
1. Get organized.
Now’s the time to get listy: Write out to-do lists (for both work and non-work tasks); make a schedule, including work events and events with family and friends; and put together a budget for gifts, travel plans, and so on. Getting everything set out before you will help you to see where you most need to put your energy and time.
2. Figure out what matters and what doesn’t.
Once you’ve gotten yourself organized, prioritize your tasks, so that you can separate “This absolutely must get done” (e.g. the budget report you have due on the 23rd and buying a present for your mom) from “It would be nice if this happened, but the world won’t end if it doesn’t” (e.g. getting a head start on next month’s project or making a gingerbread Christmas wreath by hand). With so much going on during the holidays, it can be easy to get bogged down doing stuff that isn’t all that important, so decide which tasks are essential and focus your energy on those.
3. Ration the sweets.
During the holidays, bowls of candy seem to magically appear on every single desk in the office, and cookies flood in from coworkers and clients. Let yourself indulge your sweet tooth once in a while, but try not to go crazy: You’re not going to be able to concentrate on your afternoon meeting if you’re in the midst of an intense sugar high because of the chocolate reindeer someone brought into work.
4. Separate work time and home time.
I know that when you’re swamped with things to do, it’s easy to let your work life and home life bleed together. But it’s at these times that it’s particularly important to focus on work when you’re at work, and on the rest of your life when you’re at home. As tempting as it is to do a bit of holiday planning at your desk, or to bring files home with you from the office, try to keep these two realms separate. Dealing with life stuff at the office will only mean that you’re more distracted and less productive there, and bringing the office home with you will make you less able to enjoy the holidays with your friends and family.
5. Don’t be afraid to say “No.”
You may be getting a lot of invitations this time of year, from social contacts and work contacts alike. Remind yourself that (TRAGICALLY) you are not Hermione Granger, you do not have a time turner, and you do not have the ability to be everywhere at once. Choose a few events that are important to you (from both a career and social perspective), and attend them with gusto. Send a courteous “Thanks, but no thanks” to the rest.
6. Don’t turn your desk into a holiday theme park.
If you love holiday decorating, embrace it! Let yourself go wild with covering every inch of your home in sparkly, happy, fake-snow-and-gingerbread-flavored goodness. But try to keep your working area relatively neat and clear. Sure, add a touch of cheer here and there, but allow your workspace to be a place that lets you actually work, without the distraction of blinking lights and 25 plastic reindeer.
7. Focus on one task at a time.
The busier we are, the more it can seem like we should multitask and do everything at once, but, actually, multitasking is bad for productivity, regardless of the time of year. As Douglas Merrill writes for Forbes, multitasking works pretty well when we’re doing things that don’t require a lot of thinking, like washing dishes and chatting on the phone. But when we’re doing multiple tasks that involve using our minds, it stops being effective. He explains,
Unfortunately, our brains just aren’t equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower. Our short-term memories can only store between five and nine things at once. … Your brain just can’t take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of information and encode them fully into short-term memory.
When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for recall later.
So you may think that you’re getting a lot done when you sit in a meeting and do your holiday shopping on your laptop at the same time, but later you’ll find that you don’t fully remember what you discussed in the meeting or what you purchased, which means you’ll have to spend more time trying to sort everything out. Try to give your full attention to one task at a time. You’ll find that, in the long run, you’ll get more done.
8. Let yourself enjoy some holiday cheer.
Sometimes the best way to combat distraction — of the holiday variety or not — is to give into it. The holidays are cheery and fun, and you should let yourself enjoy them. Trying to ignore them may only have the effect of making you feel more distracted. So let yourself get in the spirit for set periods of time, and then make yourself get back to work. It may even be worth taking a couple of days off of work so that you can give yourself over completely to holiday shopping, family event preparations, and fun. Afterward, you’ll come back to work more clear-headed and ready to be productive.