How Do I Get Organized for the Holidays?

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America’s No. 1 organizing expert answers life’s most pressing – and sometimes simplest – questions.

Promises, promises. Every year, you vow to get your holiday cards and shopping done early – and yet inevitably, you end up doing the old eleventh-hour rite-of-season shuffle. Cards don’t get mailed – oh, the guilt!; or worse, arrive December 28 – ugh, the embarrassment! You can’t believe you’re one of the lunatics rushing to the mall on December 24 – again? – busting your budget on expensive items you don’t even want. Ah, the self-recrimination!

What keeps us from fulfilling our early-bird intentions? Two things. The first is overambition: We overcomplicate holiday projects, which leads to paralysis. The second is lack of planning:  We fail to carve out the time required to get things done.

This year, infuse your holidays with joy by simplifying your holiday tasks, and freeing your spirit of lastminute-itis. The beauty of planning ahead is that you can do a little at a time, think clearly, save money and – imagine that – even enjoy the process!

Keep it Real
Just because you’re starting early doesn’t mean you should get fancy! Reduce stress by limiting your lists (no need to include every person you ever met), and shrinking the scope of your projects. A potluck holiday party is easier to pull together and takes less time than a soup-to-nuts home meal you assemble yourself. Remember the point of these gestures in the first place: It’s a chance to express love, reconnect or extend social decorum. Weigh and measure the options – easy vs. elaborate – in terms of actual hours required, so you can be realistic. Do you want to send e-cards (easiest), store-bought cards (a nice personal touch) or homemade cards (only for the highly experienced).

Consider what makes the holidays special for you (is it cards, gifts, get-togethers, decorating?) and just focus on those few activities, so you have the energy to enjoy the season.

Divide and Conquer the Holiday Card List
Between now and Thanksgiving, take a few weekends to assemble your holiday card list. Given our complicated technological lives, you may need to pull the list from several sources: your address book, database, cell phone directory and e-mail history (to jog your memory). Don’t forget to look through the envelopes from the holiday cards you received last year (if you saved them for just this purpose). Update missing information, including e-mail and snail mail addresses, zip codes and name changes in the event of marriages, divorces and kids moving out or in! Generate your list on a Word document titled Holiday Cards 2010, and save it so you can build upon it in subsequent years (ending this yearly chaos once and for all).

Next, divide your holiday card list into three groups, either alphabetically (e.g., A-H, I-O, P-Z), or by category (e.g., work, friends, family). Beginning Thanksgiving weekend, fill out cards for one group each Saturday, and mail by December 14. You’ll be on time for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s!

Make Gift Shopping Simple
Make a master list of everyone you want to buy for, including notes about each person’s interests, sizes, style, etc. Before you do an ounce of shopping, scour your favorite hiding places for gifts you tucked away (ditto for leftover wrapping paper and ribbons); chances are you can check off at least 25 percent of your list immediately. Now, open your calendar and schedule a maximum of three shopping trips into your calendar, all before December 15. Choose specialty stores that allow you to shop according to themes (e.g., food gifts, journals or bath salts for everyone), or one-stop shops that offer enough variety (museum stores, craft fairs and department stores). Shopping online counts as an excursion! Pick a place that offers free gift-wrapping and will ship directly to out-of-town recipients. Mailing gifts yourself? Get to the post office by December 15.

Keep excellent records
The real key to streamlining these holiday chores is to build on your routine every year. Start by creating two folders: Holiday Gifts and Holiday Cards. Charge all gifts to one credit card to keep track of expenses, and get in the habit of printing and filing confirmations for all online purchases. Record what you gave each person directly onto your master shopping list, including how much you spent, so you’ll having something to reference next year. Place a copy of your final address list in the Holiday Cards file. If you receive cards this year from people not on your list, toss their return address into your file and blend into your own list next winter.

There’s more to this season than cards and gifts … it’s a time build relationships and relish the joy of the season. So no fingers-crossed on your promise this year! Keep it simple … leaving yourself enough time to stop and smell the pine trees.

Editor’s Note: New York Times bestselling author Julie Morgenstern is an organizing and time-management expert, business productivity consultant and speaker. Her company, Julie Morgenstern Enterprises, is dedicated to using her philosophies and methods to provide a wide range of practical solutions that transform the way people and companies function. Do you have a “How Do I?” question for Julie? Leave your questions in the comments below or e-mail submit@wowOwow.com.

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