How to stay focused when working during the holidays

Marija Kojic

Last updated on: June 13, 2022

The holidays are typically the time to enjoy the festivities and spend some quality time with your friends and family. But, sometimes you’ll have to focus on your job instead while everyone else is enjoying Christmas carols and prolonged Thanksgiving dinners — which usually makes even the easiest assignments much harder to do.

So, when you see that you are scheduled to work on an otherwise treasured holiday, or have to clock in extra time to finish all your work before the end of the year, you may wonder:

“How do I stay focused on work during the holidays?”

“How can I have a productive holiday?”

If you are working from home, this challenge may seem even more serious, posing the question:

“How can I stay home and stay focused at work?”

Staying focused during holidays - cover

So, to help you tackle your priority tasks or simply finish your scheduled shift, here are 10 tips on how to stay focused at work and not get distracted while the number of holiday festivities is tipping the odds against you:

If you can, start your workday earlier

If you work on a flexible schedule, you have the opportunity to start your day in such a way that you finish your work earlier.

So, instead of sleeping in, make the effort to get up early in the morning during the holiday season — for example, at 6:00 am or 6:30 am.

Make it a routine to have a light breakfast, perform a couple of quick exercises to energize yourself, and try to start work no later than 7:00 am.

This way, if you have to work a fixed amount of 8 hours per day, you’ll always finish your workday by 3:00 pm. You’ll likely complete all the work you’ve scheduled for the day with no rush, and still have plenty of time to enjoy all the festivities you want.

Take at least a few days off

Research shows that as much as 27.3% of US adults don’t take time off during the holiday season. But, just because you’ll work during the holidays doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take some time off before or after the holidays.

If you have a couple of vacation days left, use them to do some early holiday shopping and spend at least some quality time with your family and friends — like watching a rerun of this year’s NFL’s Thanksgiving Day games, or hanging up the Christmas decorations earlier.

If there’s time, maybe you can even squeeze in a couple of days at an isolated spa resort or a snowy mountain cabin.

This way, you’ll feel at least a little bit refreshed and recharged when you go back to the office, and thus more likely to focus on work in a productive manner.

While at work, focus on work

If you have to work harder during the holidays, make sure you actually finish some of your workload during this time. Don’t just dabble with online shopping, like 57% of US adults already do, or procrastinate by browsing Pinterest to find ideas for innovative Christmas tree decorations.

Instead, make a to-do list of your priorities, estimate the time it will take you to finish each assignment, block time in your calendar for these assignments, and then start your work.

For extra insight into your routine, you can also track the time you spend working during the holidays to decide whether such a practice is productive for you at all – perhaps you’ll find that you’re actually wasting more time than saving it?
Staying focused during holidays 1

Isolate yourself from distractions

This tip can apply to people who have workplace distractions to tackle, but it especially applies to those who work from home. This practice of working from home comes with its fair share of challenges, to begin with, even when it’s not the holiday season — but the problems seem to multiple come festive time.

So, in addition to figuring out how to dissuade your cat from sleeping on your keyboard, you’ll also probably want to know how to block the sound of your family caroling or watching inevitable reruns of the Home Alone series.

The trick here is to isolate yourself from auditory distractions as much as you can.

If you have a separate room for work, you’re off to a great start — closing the door of your home office is usually enough to at least muffle distracting sounds. Plus, it is likely to dissuade members of your household from interrupting you (and, the cat simply can’t get in).

But, if you live in a small apartment, you won’t have the luxury of physically isolating yourself from the rest of the family.

Either way, it’s highly recommended that you invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Just, put them on and configure a white noise generator app, or play some productivity-enhancing music (or do both, for the best effect). This should block most, if not all noise — even when your mother and sister are standing right next to you, fighting about whose turn it is to make eggnog.

As an added bonus, having the headphones on should serve as a visual reminder for your family members to refrain from interrupting you — and, you should be able to focus on your work with no problem.

Take short breaks from work

So, we already discussed how to deal with distractions such as the sound of your family’s holiday activities when working from home. But, eventually, it won’t be just your need to block these distractions that will be the problem — it will be your need to join in, despite the workload that still awaits you.

You can try to manage this need by taking occasional breaks. If you really want to join in and sing your favorite carol, help your son proofread his letter to Santa, or catch your favorite Christmas movie scene, then take a short break to do it. Afterward, be sure to take the headphones back on, and focus your attention back on your tasks.

If you fear that you won’t be able to find the willpower to resume work when the time comes, it’s highly recommendable that you create a special work-break schedule.

One solution you can implement for this purpose is the Pomodoro time management technique — it requires you to operate in 25-minute work intervals and 5-minute break intervals that alternate. After four 25/5-minute cycles, you take a well-deserved 20-minute break, before taking on another four cycles. By sticking to this work-break schedule, you’ll find time in your day both for work tasks and festivity-filled breaks.

💡 Clockify offers a built-in Pomodoro Timer for Mac and within its browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox. You’ll be able to personally define the length of your work and break intervals (e.g. 90 minutes for work, 15 minutes for short breaks, and 30 minutes for longer breaks, if the 25/5/20 routine doesn’t suit you). Plus, you’ll be reminded when it’s time to work or take a break with an alarm sound and visual notifications. Sign up for a free account here, and give it a try.

Structure, organize, and filter your work

Saying “yes” to all requests while at work during the holidays only sets you up for failure –  given that you’re probably having trouble concentrating in the first place with all those festive temptations and the call of the holiday spirit.

So, be selective with what you take on – list all your work, and decide what are your most important and most urgent tasks and goals for this time period.

Then, make sure you start each workday with your most demanding challenge. This way, you’ll ensure you finish your most difficult task early on, and clear your daily schedule for more pleasant tasks – or some time to exchange Secret Santa presents.

At the end of each workday, make sure you also checkmark all the tasks you’ve completed that day – you’ll feel a boost of confidence once you see how much you’ve managed to finish.

Before going to bed, take 15 minutes to write another list of tasks you plan to finish tomorrow. It will help you organize your work in a well-structured manner and provide a great perspective on your future workload – perhaps you’ll find that you’re progressing faster than you thought you would.
How to stay focused during the holidays 2

Eliminate some tasks from your schedule

If you want to be efficient during the holidays, you’ll also need to eliminate tasks that are neither important nor urgent enough to deserve your focus and attention at the moment.

This can be an outline for a project that’s due months from now, or a random email you’re only looking to answer out of politeness.

By working on these tasks, you’ll just be wasting away those precious minutes you could be spending on finalizing that project that’s due tomorrow.

So, allocate extra time to tasks that need to be done as soon as possible – and leave the rest for after New Year’s Eve.

Don’t work the entire day

Working during the holidays sounds grim, especially when you also have to work overtime, but it never means you have to spend 24/7 worrying about your tasks. Instead, work when you should, but join in on the festive activities when you clock out.

For example, plan a late dinner with your family over Thanksgiving, a festive-themed game night, or a midnight movie marathon of your favorite Christmas movies over the weekend. You can even schedule these holiday activities in a planner, next to your work activities, in order to make sure you carry them out.

In the end, knowing that you’ll be able to unwind after work hours will always make it easier to focus on a task at hand in the morning.

💡 Looking for a way to track your overtime hours while working during the holidays? Check out Clockify, our free employee overtime tracker that automatically calculates your overtime earnings.

Avoid multitasking

Multitasking may seem like a great solution to help you finish more tasks in less time, but you’re more likely to waste this time than maximize it. Namely, what most people would call multitasking, is actually switching between tasks in such rapid succession that you rarely have the time or energy to focus on an activity. As a result, you can’t finish any of the tasks you’re “multitasking” on, with the expected quality.

So, no, it’s probably not a good idea to answer client emails and browse Black Friday deals while attending a meeting.

Instead, you can try to carry out these activities in separate, well-defined time blocks — just, use a time blocking planner to allocate specific times to each of your tasks. Then, focus on each scheduled task during the allocated time, before moving on to the next one in your planner.

For example:

  • Time block 1 [30 minutes, 9:00 am – 9:30 am]: answer emails
  • Time block 2 [30 minutes, 9:30 am – 10:00 am]: attend a meeting
  • Time block 3 [5 minutes, 10:00 am – 10:05 am]: a short break reserved for browsing Black Friday deals

By breaking these tasks into separate time slots instead of tackling them together, you ensure you have the energy to focus on each with undivided attention and effort. Plus, by scheduling an official time block for a fun activity, you’ll be more likely to resist the urge to pause your work at random for it, instead.

Ask your loved ones to respect your work hours

Working while your loved ones are planning Christmas or Thanksgiving get-togethers means you’re bound to get caught into at least some of the logistical problems — even if you have decided to host only a virtual party via a video call this year.

But, it’s hard to find online holiday-themed games your mother can play with her nephews while you’re fixing critical bugs on your company’s app.

Not that you’re family and friends will always understand this.

To make sure you get quality work done, you’ll need to explain that you won’t be able to help your loved ones as much as you would like. Be clear on the times of day you won’t be able to answer their calls and requests – and instruct them how to reach you if there’s an absolute emergency.

Also, be clear on what absolute emergencies mean – i.e. something you’re absolutely necessary to help them with.

A ruined turkey dinner with no way of securing another unless you pick up the catering on the way home? An emergency they can contact you for.

An aunt you barely know having a row with your sister and refusing to join you for Christmas? They should leave you to focus on those app bugs.

Wrapping up

Staying focused on work during the holidays only sounds impossible – but the right hacks can do wonders for your concentration. If you do all the aforementioned, you’ll ensure that you have both enough focus for your work and enough time to take in at least some of the holiday spirit.

Author: MarijaKojic

Marija Kojic is a productivity writer who's always researching about various productivity techniques and time management tips in order to find the best ones to write about. She can often be found testing and writing about apps meant to enhance the workflow of freelancers, remote workers, and regular employees. Appeared in G2 Crowd Learning Hub, The Good Men Project, and Pick the Brain, among other places.

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