Get set for a merry stress-free Christmas

Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK
01 November 2018

When it comes to Christmas, do you tell yourself every year: “This year will be different, this year I will be organised! This year,” you declare, “there’ll be no stress.” Only to find yourself dashing madly around the supermarket on Christmas Eve, panicking because all the mince pies have sold out, you’ve not wrapped a single present, let alone bought everything you’d planned to? And, all in all, what’s meant to be a joyous and cheerful time has got you tearing your hair out?

If this is you then you’re not alone; most of us have the greatest intentions and then struggle to follow them through. Here’s what’s going on in your brain.

The intention-behaviour gap

We often have good intentions to do something but end up not taking any action. These intentions can get lost in our habits – did you know, up to 95 per cent of our behaviour is driven by unconscious, automatic processes in our brains? Our intentions also get swallowed up by the complexity of modern-day life, and other things coming up in the moment that seem more appealing.

For example, have you heard of present bias? This is when we know what we should be doing but our busy lives and hectic schedules (which only gets worse at Christmas) often get in the way. And as a result we fail to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Therefore, we value the immediate reward (like going for Christmas drinks after work) over future ones (going shopping and stocking up on Christmas essentials to be more organised). Not to mention we might get FOMO!

In the lead up to Christmas, there are lots of things we need to do that don’t fall into our usual routine or habitual behaviour. For example, we need to make the time to:

  • decide what to buy friends and family and then go shopping to actually get them
  • write and send cards to friends and family
  • wrap presents
  • stock up on food for Christmas meals and feasts
  • prep and cook the Christmas dinner
  • buy a Christmas tree and decorate it
  • Shop for a Christmas party dress or outfit
  • go to festivities and Christmas parties

So what can we do so that we can enjoy this time of year? Here are some tips, backed up by behavioural science, that can help you follow through on those good intentions this time around.

Tips to get organised

We have a tendency to underestimate how long things will take us (called the planning fallacy) and think we can do all our Christmas shopping in one hit. This is often not the case – it’s not as easy as we expect it to be. We can end up feeling disheartened and anxious, especially if we’ve left it until the last minute.

Make use of to-do lists: even better, have two.

  1. Master your to-do list – include all the tasks you need to do leading up to Christmas day. This might seem overwhelming so…
  2. From this, make a weekly to-do list, breaking down bigger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. Do this even for ones that are really easy (it’s satisfying and rewarding to our brains to tick things off).

Action plans and goals

Using your to-do list, set yourself targets. For example, pick a date that you want to have the Christmas gift shopping done by, then another date when you’ll wrap them. Then work out how you will achieve this, keeping your plan as specific as possible: when, where, and how will you do the wrapping? Scheduling activities into your calendar will make sure you stick to them and commit. You could also set yourself reminders on your phone if you think you might forget about the scheduled time.

Reward yourself after achieving each goal and be compassionate if you slip up.

Make a commitment

When we don’t enjoy doing something, being ‘busy’ is often easier than the task at hand. Instead of doing the shopping we do something else instead. This is much more enjoyable but we then panic when we realise we’re running out of time to get everything done. If you hate doing the Christmas shopping and have a tendency to put it off, make a commitment to go with a friend. Organising plans with someone makes it harder to back out of, and means it’ll probably be more enjoyable too. We’re much more likely to do something if we have made a commitment, especially a public one.

To keep your action plan on track you could make a commitment contract with yourself using an app like stickK. This allows you to create a goal and timeline, and then put something at stake. So you bet on yourself to achieve your goal and your money is either sent to a charity you support, or an anti-charity whose views you don’t agree with!

‘If-then’ implementation intention plans

For when life gets in the way, have a contingency plan in place to respond to certain cues in your environment. ‘If-then’ statements are a good fall-back tool. For example, say to yourself: “If I’ve been invited to go for drinks after work but I need to do some wrapping, then I will only stay for one drink and go home to wrap two more presents.”

More tips and tricks from people who’ve mastered the art of a stress-free Christmas

Here are some excellent tips from people who have mastered the art of getting ready for Christmas in good time. We hope they help you make your Christmas to-do list that little bit easier this year.

Money saving experts

  • My Dad uses the points he collects from his petrol all year to buy a case of beer every Christmas (standard Dad…).
  • My cousin (14 and thrifty as she is!) saves tokens from the newspaper all year and gets a free turkey for everyone!
  • I always aim to start my Christmas shopping in October/November time, so that way it’s spread out over potentially three pay days.
  • I normally give myself a budget for each person and try not to go over that.
  • Black Friday normally takes place in November so this may be a good time to buy gifts with a hefty discount!
  • Buy Christmas wrapping paper/cards in the sale after Christmas ready for next year to save a few pounds!
  • We have a large family to buy presents for, so one year we opted for the Secret Santa option and agreed to just spend our money on one person. This worked well in allowing us to invest more time and money in choosing something decent, rather than going down the usual route of presents for up to £20 such as socks, ties and all that jazz. Although for kids it takes the fun out of opening lots of presents.
  • Children often get far too much at Christmas. Don’t go overboard with gifts for your children – do fewer special presents rather than loads of tat! Far less stress.
  • I save and use leftover cards and wrapping paper from last year.

Food and pressie time savers

  • My Mum adds one Christmas food item to her shopping trolley each week so the cost doesn’t add up in December. So she gets things like Cranberry sauce, bottles of wine, custard etc. She also buys a lot of her veg pre-chopped at a local fruit and veg shop a few days before Christmas which helps.
  • If I’m ordering presents online, I get them delivered to my Nan’s so that I don’t have to carry them through London when travelling home. (One year I had a suitcase and bags and bags of presents to cart through rush hour and it was hell!) I definitely learnt my lesson there.
  • I make sure to arrange catch-ups with friends when I’m home and plan some activities I enjoy so I don’t get cabin fever and feel stuck in the house if everyone’s driving me mad.
  • I personally start creating a ‘pile’ of presents from January and slowly add – these are usually smaller gifts and stocking fillers.
  • Get your family Christmas wish lists in early, which gives you more time to choose the presents that they actually want, and it avoids the mad Christmas rush.
  • If you have lots of Christmas cards to write it might be a good idea to write them in batches rather than all in one go. Putting 15-20 minutes aside a couple of days a week for this may help.
  • Pre-make your Yorkshires, stuffing, even roast potatoes, and freeze them in advance. There are lots of good recipes online.
  • If you’re pushed for time and the thought of stuffing and sewing a raw turkey fills you with dread, a great shortcut is to buy a ready-made stuffed turkey, and then serve it up as your own! (just kidding!)
  • Make your Christmas cake early as you can store it in the cupboard for months.

Get creative this Christmas

  • I start writing and making (painting) my Christmas cards in October or November so that it doesn’t get left to the last minute and all at once becomes tedious and not very fun!
  • Christmas markets are a great way to find gifts for people as well as get in the Christmas spirit with mulled wine and a mince pie.
  • Something fun I did with my siblings one year was a charity shop challenge. We set each other a £10 limit on buying for each other, and said it had to be spent in charity shops. The results were surprisingly great (books, DVDs etc) and interesting! Plus it saved the four of us some cash in a year we were all counting the pennies.
  • If you enjoy being creative why not prepare Christmas hampers as gifts for your family? It’s cost effective and a great way of personalising your presents and you can start preparing what goes in it months in advance, such as jam and biscuits. My brother-in-law’s mum does it every year and it’s always so well received.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when they need it.

Lauren Gordon
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK

What would you like us to write about?


Health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care.