9 tips for staying sane during the holidays

Angela Larkin

Angela Larkin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and half of the husband and wife team at Extra Small Design in Phoenix, Arizona. She is also the mother of a shark-obsessed three-year-old.


First off, I’d like to make it clear that I’m no one’s foremost expert on sanity. I, too, over-schedule and skimp on downtime because I WANT. TO. DO. ALL. THE. THINGS, and there’s no time that’s more true than during the holidays (I’m basically that gif of Leslie Knope screaming, “I am super-chill all the time!”).

But over the years (and with lots of encouragement from my more relaxed husband) I’ve learned a few strategies that help me battle my natural tendencies and save all of our sanity. Here are some ways I keep from losing it:

1. Make a holiday bucket list.

The best way to keep calm and holiday on is to not try to do it all, right? But that’s always easier said than done. The best way I’ve found to avoid FOMO is to focus on what’s most meaningful and valuable to us; we love doing that with a family bucket list. We’ve started making these seasonally, and it’s a great thing to do early on when everything isn’t possible (like right now!). Since it’s a group effort, everyone’s voice is heard, and half the fun is seeing what each person picks. Ideally, bucket list items are a mix of big and small activities. For example, our summer list included some bigger activities (a star-gazing trip to Flagstaff, Ariz.) and some easy-to-do-on-a-Tuesday fun (eating popsicles!).

As a bonus, if you do an advent calendar or another holiday countdown, integrating the bucket list activities into that can be a good way to make sure they happen!

2. Schedule gaps.

I struggle with scheduling downtime in my everyday life, let alone during the holidays, but I know in my heart that we as a family do better when we have some totally free time. My husband always begs me to only schedule activities on one of the weekend days, so the other day can be commitment-free. Like magic, when we do this, everyone is way more relaxed, spontaneous fun can happen, and the weekend feels like an actual weekend instead of something I need to recover from on Monday. Don’t be like me: Listen to my husband.

3. Start with family.

The holidays should be about family (including like-family friends!), so plug those family traditions into your calendar first and then add activities around that. If you know you always do Christmas Eve tamales with your in-laws, and a cookie exchange with your best friends the weekend before, get that stuff into your system from the get-go.

4. Meal plan.

Meal planning is always super helpful, right? I feel like a freaking rock star anytime of year that I plan ahead and have everything I need to make good meals at home. But when you’re busy, it’s even more important. Because the holiday season tends to get crazy, decision fatigue is at its worst and so is “OMG. I don’t care, let’s just get Chinese takeout” (hand raised over here). Meal planning makes “what’s for dinner?” one less thing to think about, and as a side bonus, helps you avoid eating cheese and cookies for every meal (great as that sounds).

5. Recognize and accept that travel with kids is hard.

Best idea: Stay home! Second best idea: Do whatever gets you there in one piece and don’t sweat the parent guilt. Maybe that means bribing your kids with gummy worms, or letting them watch a bunch of movies on the ipad, or running a few laps with them in the airport concourse. Normal rules can be massaged during a hectic travel day, and you don’t need to feel guilty about it. You do what you need to do to get there without murdering everyone or weeping in a roadside restroom.

6. Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime everything, all the time. #notsponsored

7. Take the stress out of gift exchanges.

If you have a big family (or friend group), there’s a definite possibility you’ll feel overwhelmed, both emotionally and financially, by the gift-buying. Secret Santa might seem like something from high school or a weird office holiday party, but the idea of focusing on one nice gift for a single person instead of lots of small presents (and a million decisions) for a crowd can be really calming. John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love choose a family theme every year so the gift exchange becomes fun, a little silly and a creative challenge. Themes of past years have included things like “Say Cheese” (photo- or cheese-related gifts), “The Good Ol’ Days” (vintage items or anything nostalgic), “What’s That Smell?” (candles, strong-smelling spices, anything scented). How fun do those sound?

8. Let it happen.

There may be a point where sanity is only an illusion, and things are pretty hectic. When this happens, practice some grace, throw your hands up and try to go with the flow. You might plan too many things in a weekend or forget to buy a present until the last minute. Take a deep breath, and try your best not to sweat it. It’s all going to be OK.

9. If all else fails, I highly recommend this spiked apple cider.

And if even that sounds like too much work, a little bourbon in some Martinelli’s (you have, like, three bottles of this in your pantry too, right?) is never a bad idea in our house.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everyone!