How to Use a Holiday

We all know that the purpose of any holiday is to celebrate or acknowledge that which the holiday is about. Thanksgiving is a time to express our thankfulness, Christmas is about celebrating Christ’s birth, and so forth.

So in one sense, the idea of “how to use a holiday” sounds a bit wrong. But here’s the twist: By “holiday” here I mean not only the actual day of a holiday, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, but also the day after and day before, along with any accompanying weekends.

There is a great opportunity here when you think more broadly. If you think strategically about the time around a holiday as well as the holiday itself, you can make these times quite interesting.

In fact, using the time around holidays well is one of the great secrets to productivity. It is a secret to productivity both in that it is a time that can be leveraged for “bonus” productivity and in that it is a time to more fully recharge, with the result that being more rested will make you more effective when things are back to normal.

Productivity, of course, isn’t the main aim. But it’s easy, for me at least, to look at days off as an opportunity to get more stuff done. And around the holidays, you have more days off than normal. So that has forced me to give thought to how to use this extra time not simply as a way to get more things done, but as a way to recharge in a broader sense — and figure out how to make the things that I do get done in this time uniquely productive.

In this broader sense, there are four purposes to holidays and the time around them:

  1. Develop relationships (new and existing)
  2. Rest
  3. Re productive in ways that you otherwise wouldn’t be
  4. Do something really interesting

These four purposes reveal four ways to make the most of the time around a holiday so that you truly can recharge, have develop relationships, serve others, and get some unique and/or truly creative things done. The key is that, for each day around and including the holiday, you need to define in advance at most two of the above purposes for the day and stick to that agenda exclusively.

1. Spend the day with family and friends

This is what you do with the holiday itself, or the day that you’ve designated to get together to celebrate. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so forth are best spent getting together with family and friends.

However, this usually doesn’t take up the whole day. How do you think about the rest of your time on these days?

If you don’t think about that question, you risk failing to make the most of the day. For when your work is just a laptop computer away, it can be very tempting to mix working in with the rest of the day in an ad hoc, spontaneous way. This is fatal. Avoid this at all costs. I mention below that work is my second favorite thing to do on a day off, but this is not the type of thing that I mean. On a holiday, you have to unplug completely from your standard work (unless, of course, you really are required to work on the holiday — which is the one exception to mixing regular work with these four strategies).

So in addition to spending time with family and friends, you need to pick an additional purpose to govern your day and the time when you are not at any get together. Usually the best one here is to do nothing or do something interesting (which also work very well in themselves on the days surrounding the holiday).

2. Do literally nothing

This is what I’ve done on New Year’s Day for the last few years: absolutely nothing. That means no work, or anything like it — not even fun work. Only things that are purely discretionary. This is especially difficult for me because of the fact that work is actually my second favorite thing to do on a day off. That’s actually why I started doing this: I realized I need to be extra-intentional to take a complete break from things. New Year’s Day isn’t the only complete day off I take of course, but on that day I try to take things to an extreme.

So on New Year’s Day, often we will watch movies (and football) all day long, play games, and things like that. Usually I really dislike watching movies or TV in the afternoon, but this day is an exception. In our old house we used to have a fireplace that made this even more fun. Just doing nothing is a great way to relax from time to time. “Nothing” doesn’t mean just sitting around; it really just means: no work, even work that you really want to do and enjoy doing.

When combining this strategy with a holiday where you are getting together with people, such as for Christmas, that means not catching up on email or anything like that when you get home. You can only do things like play with your kids, play a game as a family, watch a movie, or something like that.

3. Work, and do something you would never have time for otherwise

The reason work is my second favorite thing to do on a day off (the first is spend time with my wife and kids) is because it is an opportunity to get to some of the tasks that are really interesting, but which you wouldn’t otherwise have time for.

For example, sometimes I’ll take a day off and update my goals for the year or tweak my filing system. I admit, that probably sounds pretty boring to many people (a whole day on filing? — though now that I know how to do it, and I don’t do that anymore). But it makes the rest of my “regular work” much more effective.

Or take last night. We drove down to my wife’s family and got there about 8:30. I wasn’t tired when everyone else went to bed, so I stayed up figuring out some new ways to organize my iTunes library better. I not only came up with some good improvements but also learned some tricks I didn’t know before. Since I have a lot more in my iTunes than just music (I also have a ton of sermons, courses, lectures, business book summaries, etc.), this will make me more effective at keeping up my learning and skills. And I’ll probably blog on how to organize iTunes in the most effective ways possible in the future.

Getting your systems running well saves you a lot of time in the day-to-day. Many of these things are essential to do; they aren’t optional in the sense of “only do them if you can — oh, here’s a holiday, so try to make some progress.” They are essential, but hard to get to. The days around a holiday provide time to do them. Nobody else is working, so you aren’t “falling behind” by taking time away from your normal work. And by getting them done, you make your ordinary work days more efficient and effective.

4. Do something very interesting

The days around a holiday are also an excellent opportunity to do something unique. Think of something fun and unusual, and do it.

Or, do something usual but still fun. So this doesn’t even have to be something you wouldn’t do on an ordinary day. For example, we take the kids to the Mall of America every so often, and doing this the day after Christmas, for example, is a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Putting this all together

So in the days around a holiday, focus the days on the above purposes. Here are some examples of how this all comes together.

Thanksgiving and the surrounding days

Thanksgiving always gives you a four day weekend (assuming you don’t have to work the Friday or weekend). So on Thanksgiving you might get together with family, and then do nothing before that and after it (for those who have to prepare the meal: that is a lot of work, but you can classify that as fun because it pertains exclusively to the holiday, rather than ongoing stuff you have to do). After everyone leaves, watch a movie, or play a game, or something like that.

Then on the day after Thanksgiving, go to the mall and do your shopping if you like being in the mix of things when they are so busy. If you don’t like that, then that day could be another candidate for doing nothing.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, that could be a good opportunity for doing projects around the house you wouldn’t otherwise do, or doing a bunch of interesting things. You could plan a whole day of unique activities: take the kids to the science center, then to the Mall of America, or whatever. If you’re single, fly to San Diego or somewhere for the weekend (be radical; leave on Friday, actually) or do something in your own city that you’d do if you were a tourist there, but haven’t done yet yourself.

Christmas and the surrounding days

On Christmas Eve Day, if you have to work, make it a day at work where you do things you wouldn’t otherwise take the time to do, but which will make you more effective in your job. Make it a reading day if you can, or finally get your files organized, or so forth. Maybe add to this doing something interesting: If you can, take off after lunch and go to a movie.

On Christmas, get together with family, and for the other parts of the day, do nothing or only do fun things.

This year, the day after Christmas is a Friday, which is a great opportunity to do interesting things all day, or just do nothing (which really means, if you can’t tell, do interesting things at home), or designate it as a day to tackle things you’ve been planning to get to but haven’t been able to. If you really need a break, designate Friday through Sunday as “do nothing” days.

New Year’s and the surrounding days

New Year’s Day is on a Thursday this year. If you do things right, you can make it feel like you have a four-day weekend and get really rested. Start on Monday: Get all your loose ends tied up Mon and Tue if you can so that you can go into the new year with all the decks cleared. Usually this is a slow week, so there is time to do that.

Then on Wed do things at work that will increase your productive capacity (a variation on point 3) and make it a fun day. Get together with people Wednesday night. Then, use Thursday (New Year’s Day) through Sunday to do nothing. That can include getting together with people and doing interesting things, the point is just to do no work at all. Get all rested up, recharged, and totally unplug. Then hit the ground running on Monday the 5th, the first real working day of the year.

The underlying principle here is: keep ordinary work away from you during the days around the holidays. That’s the way to make sure you recharge and make the most of your time with others, while creating some good memories and maybe getting some very useful stuff done.

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  • Rob Andrea

    helpful post. I’ll be looking forward to a post on how to organize itunes.

  • Bryce

    Hey Matt, Any tips for pastors, who find themselves working MORE around holidays?

  • Matt


    That’s a great question. My main thought is, just as most pastors designate a non-weekend day for their weekly day off, I would encourage pastors to designate a few days away from the holidays in which to do the unplugging I talk about in this post. That’s a preliminary thought, though, so I haven’t thought that through to the end yet.

    In addition to this, I’d maybe say to try to reduce the types of tasks that aren’t made necessary during the holidays. I have in mind here routine things that maybe can be put off until after the holidays, so that even during the holidays some more time can be carved for some unique projects or just focusing more on family.

    An example here would be taking an “email vacation” for a few days during the week of Christmas (if possible) or New Year’s. This would require, obviously, setting up an auto reply letting people that email know how to get in touch with you if it’s urgent.