When you see holiday items in the stores this time of year, how does it make you feel? Do you think, “Hooray, the holidays will be here soon?” Or is your response more along the lines of “No, not yet! I don’t want to think about the holidays!” If evidence of the upcoming holidays makes you cringe, then chances are the holidays typically fill you with more stress than joy, and more hustle and bustle than rest and relaxation.

What if I told you I’ve been there, too, but found a better way? I used to see holiday items in the middle of October and think, “Please not before Halloween. I just don’t want to think about the holidays yet.” If this season were something I was truly looking forward to, I wouldn’t have minded. Something was out of sync. On some level I dreaded the holidays instead of looking forward to them. But today all that has changed, because I’ve created a simple formula for my holiday season—one that adds up to a more peaceful season for everyone in my family.

(Want to know my secret formula? Read on!)

Start with a Vision for the Season.

The stress-free holiday formula starts with a crystal-clear vision as to what you want out of the holiday season. Have you ever given that much thought? I hadn’t either, back in the day. Instead, I dove blindly into the season, and simply hoped for the best. Ironically, what I wanted for the holidays was always crystal clear come January. I wished I had spent more time relaxing, and less time rushing around. I wished I had gotten the must-do tasks done earlier, so there was more time to simply enjoy my family and the good stuff the season brings. And there were also those years I wished I had spent less money!

The trouble is this: January isn’t the time to determine what you want out of your holiday season, that’s what late October and early November are for. Take a few minutes now to get clear about your vision for the holiday season. Ask yourself, what’s most important this time of year? Ask your family and friends, too. Then, pull your ideas together to create what I call a holiday inspiration statement—your overall vision for the holiday season.

Add a Plan.

Once you have your overall vision in place, add a plan to your happy holiday equation. Your plan doesn’t have to be perfect or complicated. Instead, make a simple list of all the things you want and need to do during the holiday season. Then, it’s time to add some subtraction to your joyful holiday equation.

gifts in bucketsSubtract Anything that Takes Away from Your Vision.

Give yourself permission to subtract (or strike through!) any optional task or activity on your list that is out of sync with your vision for the holidays. If sending holiday cards makes your blood pressure rise, send postcards instead, opt for Valentine’s cards in February when things are less hectic or skip the cards altogether this year. If wrapping fancy gifts doesn’t make you happy, use gift bags instead. The bottom line is this: When you fill your holiday to-do list with things that really make the season special to you, and take out anything that makes it a bummer, you will enjoy the holidays more.

Divide Your Plan into Small Bites.

Here’s the beauty of creating your list now: You can bite size your holiday preparations and spread tasks out over the weeks ahead. Let’s say your holiday list will take you 40 hours to complete; if you start now, you can spend just five hours a week, or one hour per day Monday through Friday until the holidays begin. (Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?) But if you wait until December 1 to get started, you would have to spend 2.3 hours per day (Monday through Friday), just on holiday preparations. What makes this even more stressful is that it will probably be harder to find those 2.3 hours in December, because your calendar will be brimming with holiday activities and stores with be busier and have longer lines. This, my friends, is why the holidays can be so stressful.

The fix is simple. Divide your plan into small bites by assigning time frames or target deadlines for each of the tasks on your list. If you’re like me and want to have time to relax and enjoy the holidays (perhaps a few quiet nights in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa?), then schedule heavy in the early weeks and leave a lot of breathing room in the weeks just before the big holiday.

Add Just a Little Bit of Flexibility.

There are a few people I’ve encountered in my life who resist creating plans, because, well, things just may not go as planned. And that feels like failure. If this sounds familiar, simply add a bit of flexibility to your holiday equation. It’s okay if you can’t carry out your plan perfectly. What I can promise you is this: You’ll come (much!) closer to carrying out your vision for the season if you create a plan than if you don’t. And, if you stay flexible and go with the flow, you’ll be a whole lot happier and full of new year’s cheer come January!

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Aby Garvey is a creative organizing expert and simplify 101’s founder. She has created 14 online organizing classes, which she has been teaching since 2007, helping thousands of people around the world get organized. Aby loves to help people create positive change in their lives through her online classes and organizing eBooks.

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