“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
Is it just me, or is everyone else managing a to-do list with multiple pages, and almost nothing is done yet? Some days, I feel like an over-caffeinated squirrel, racing around trying to do it all and wondering when it will get great. It’s about to be Thanksgiving, then the December holidays, which means extra cooking, shopping, gift-giving, hosting, and cleaning.
Oh, and staying employed, too; with the end of the year, many of us have work deadlines, projects looming, and clients hovering. All while it’s dark in the morning, dark in the afternoon, and dinnertime feels like it’s a midnight feast.
At this time of year, it feels like every day is packed with so many big tasks. Sometimes, size matters; nothing seems small about this time of year—everything is ginormous and complicated.
It reminds me of school projects when my kids were little. One of them always struggled with large projects, so the school set it up so he could break down an overwhelming assignment into smaller bits, working on one part at a time. I remember thinking, “That’s genius! Why doesn’t everyone do that?”
Think about a typical Thanksgiving meal — lots of side dishes, a freakishly large dead bird that needs to cook for hours, slathered in butter, after being embalmed with a mixture of bread and sausages. There’s usually a crowd of friends and relatives, coming and going, and everyone knows if you don’t have half a dozen pies at the ready, you’re some kind of seasonal slacker.
Most people I know who host dinners have spreadsheets or pages of notes, recipes, and schedules. I have hosted Thanksgiving, but I cannot tell a lie — I was not organized. If you don’t count the great Brussels sprout failure of 2017, the meal was edible but chaotic. I’m grateful to be hosted by friends now, and if you have someone that does the lion’s share of a holiday meal? Bring something special, just for them. They are heroes.
There are a ton of moving parts in any holiday celebration, and it’s OK if you’re just barely keeping up. Almost no one has it all worked out perfectly. Since most celebrations involve people coming together, use the network and delegate. Break it down into small bits of work, and then call in the troops. Friends that come to visit can pitch in with the dishes. Family members can break up a shopping list, so one person isn’t doing it all. There can be a clean-up crew and a set-up crew for most gatherings. If you are feeding people, they can help out.
I’m not very good at multitasking, and there are brain studies that show it’s not efficient anyway, so my mantra lately is, “One thing at a time,” like an Advent calendar. Each day, you get one space to open. My favorite calendar was the LEGO version I got for one of my kids. Each day, there was a small toy to build, but in the end, all the little builds made up a larger set.
None of this is rocket science, but it does involve one particularly tough task — letting go. Holidays involve traditions; sometimes, you can’t talk Aunt Edna out of doing the whole meal her own way, even if she complains about it for weeks. But if we find a way to spread out the chores, bring in the younger family and friends, and give them a part in the process, then the circle widens and everyone is a part of it.
Many small things coming together to make a great thing sounds much better than a two-page list of tasks. Whether it’s dropping off flowers to your hostess, running an errand for a friend, or just drying the dishes after the meal, find a way to make a small dent in someone else’s list.
Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column appears weekly.