Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Clutter-Free Gift Giving

Tip of the Week, December 11, 2005

Exchanging gifts with friends and family is often an integral part of the holiday season; whether it feels like a cherished tradition or an unavoidable chore, it's a task that can involve more than a bit of stress. Give yourself a break--and give your recipients something that won't end up as unused clutter--by considering presents that aren't necessarily things. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Give an experience
One of the best ways to give a thoughtful, creative gift that's almost certain to be used is to give an experience. Does your recipient love going to the movies? Give her a pair of movie theater gift certificates and a credit at the concessions stand. (For parents of younger children, consider throwing a few hours of babysitting into the mix, too.) Music fans might appreciate tickets to the local symphony or opera, while sports bugs would love seats for the home team's game.

Experiences don't have to cost much (or anything): coupons for a few hours of help around the house, an afternoon in the park, or a home cooked dinner and a movie at your house can all be great and much appreciated gifts.

Give a gift certificate
Gift certificates sometimes get a bad rap as being uncreative, unthoughtful, and bland. But I beg to differ: a well-chosen gift certificate can be a much easier and more pleasant option for both the giver and the recipient. Not sure what size your 12-year-old niece wears or what colors she's into these days? A gift card for her favorite clothes store will let her pick out something she'll love and will spare you the anguish of trying to guess. Don't want to add to the piles of stuff you know are lurking in your grandmother's closet? Treat her and a friend to lunch at a local restaurant.

Gift certificates generally come in a wide range of amounts, usually starting at $5, making them an economical choice. As an added bonus, some online stores now send gift certificates electronically, making them perhaps the most clutter-free gift possible.

Give a donation
Making a donation to charity in your recipients honor has a range of benefits. It lets you give to a worthy cause (be sure to choose one that's meaningful to your giftee) and, if you deduct charitable donations, offers you a tax break. It lets the charity help others, possibly those who would otherwise have little to celebrate during the holiday season. And, of course, it lets your recipient know that you took the time and effort to give a thoughtful gift that won't end up at the back of a closet or the bottom of a pile.

Many charities will gladly send your recipient a card letting him or her know of your gift; you might also choose to write up something on your own explaining why you chose the charity you did. Some of most meaningful and impactful gifts I've given and received have been donations to worthy non-profits.

Give a subscription
Finally, consider giving a subscription to a newspaper, a magazine, a Web site, or a service. There are periodicals these days for an incredibly wide range of hobbies, interests, professions, ages, and styles; finding one that suits your recipient should be a fairly simple undertaking.

Another great option is to give the gift of online access. Many Web sites (such as salon.com and the Wall Street Journal Online) offer enhanced features to subscribers. Other online services, like eMusic, let subscribers download music, movies, and other media. Subscriptions can often be purchased on a monthly or yearly basis; find one that fits your budget and suits your giftee's tastes and you'll have a great gift that requires no wrapping paper and won't wind up as clutter.

By choosing clutter-free presents this holiday season, you'll give yourself the gift of less stress and more time (adios, long lines in the mall!) and will give your recipients thoughtful, useful, creative gifts that are almost sure to be put to use.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

5 Ways to Cut Holiday Stress

Tip of the Week, December 4, 2005

It's December, which means bells aren't the only things jingling and jangling: for many of us, our nerves seem to be, too. The holidays are a stressful time, and though nothing can alleviate that stress altogether (short of opting out of celebrating anything), there are ways to help keep the hair-pulling, nerve-shaking moments at bay. Here are five I put to use myself.

Send New Year's greetings
I fully intended to send holiday cards in December this year, as I normally do. Then my schedule started to fill with work, my social calendar started getting (pleasantly) full, and the rest of life clamored for attention. So I've decided to send my holiday greetings after the turn of the year. My cards won't get lost in the shuffle of the dozens of other greetings my friends and family will receive this month, I have one less task to worry about in December, and I can take the time to write more meaningful messages come January. (As an added bonus, many holiday cards go on sale right after Christmas, so I may even be able to save a few bucks--always a welcome prospect this time of year.)

Ask for (and accept) help
Each year, I throw a holiday party for my friends. It's a big undertaking, and one that definitely involves some planning and some effort, but it's made much easier by the fact that I know I can count on my friends to lend a hand. Some bring wine and beer, some pitch in to help set up or clean up, and some bring food.

Relying on others to help out means giving up some control: I let folks bring whatever food and drink they're inclined to bring, have lost a few wine glasses to others' slippery hands in the sink, and sometimes get a few surprises. But to me, that's half the fun, and it's definitely worth it in the stress and effort I save. Plus, it lets my guests feel more involved in the celebration.

Aim low(er)
This month's issue of Martha Stewart Living boasts elaborately sparkled fake birds on the cover, as well as a promise of recipes for "perfect cookies." Great! More power to anyone with enough time, attention, and ambition to bedeck birds with glitter and bake elaborate sweets.

I'll be keeping my decorations simple--a live Christmas tree with white lights, a single strand of silver star garland, and some silver glass balls, along with a few holiday accents scattered here and there throughout the house--and my baking low-key. Remember, unless you're hosting a fancy party for guests you absolutely must impress (in which case see the tip directly above), chances are your family and friends won't demand perfection.

Slack off a little
There are a few regular organizing tasks that are easy enough that they're worth sticking with even in the midst of holiday chaos: regularly opening mail, putting things away when you're done with them, and doing small chores often so they don't become huge.

Others, though, can safely fall by the wayside until January: you probably don't need to devote too much time this month to, say, de-cluttering your closet, reorganizing your files, or weeding out unread books from your shelves. Once the holidays are over, you'll have more time, will be able to give these tasks more attention, and may just be more motivated to attack them.

Focus on what's behind the celebrations
When I work with clients, I always try to help them focus on the real reasons they want to get organized--for example, to feel less stressed, to have more time, and to feel more comfortable in their homes and offices. By the same token, it's worth reminding yourself in the midst of the hustle of the holiday season why you're celebrating in the first place.

For me, the center of the holidays is spending time with family and friends, many of whom I don't often see. I also love having the chance to look back at the past year and look ahead to the next. These points of focus are behind all of the things I do around the holidays--from decorating to hosting my party to travelling back east. When my days get crazy and my stress level mounts, I can step back and remind myself what I'm really celebrating.

Try putting a few (or all) of these stress-cutting techniques to work this holiday season. I hope you'll find that they give you more time to take part in the traditions that mean the most to you with the people you care about. And you might just discover that, come January, you're more relaxed, refreshed, and ready to make 2006 your best year yet.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

3 Tips for Organized Holiday Travel

Tip of the Week, November 20 and 27, 2005

This Wednesday, I'll be joining masses of my fellow Americans on a holiday travel journey. Though the process of flying across the country won't be (and, for me, never is) entirely stress-free, I've developed some travel habits and practices that help make my journeys calmer, less hectic, and more organized. On your next holiday trip, whether by plane, train, or automobile, try putting some of these tips to use.

Pack mindfully
How much and what you pack for each trip depends on several factors: where you're going, how long you'll be there, what you'll be doing, and how you're travelling. A week-long trip taken by car, for example, allows a lot more leeway luggage-wise than a three-day journey by plane. In any case, though, being mindful of what you pack can help ensure that you have what you need without being overwhelmed by too much stuff.

Packing mindfully doesn't require deprivation or forced minimalism. It simply means that before loading up your suitcases, you take the time to think about what you're bringing and decide whether it's worth the schlep. Remember, the more stuff you bring, the more you'll have to deal with while you're on vacation, and the more you'll have to worry about bringing home again.

Give yourself enough time
If you've ever had to sprint through an airport or train station to board on time (which--confession time--I have, and more than once) or have arrived late for an event because you didn't allow ample drive time (ditto), you know first-hand how running behind can add to the stress of travel.

Though the amount of time you need to get where you're going will vary widely depending on how, when, and where you're travelling, a safe rule of thumb for holiday journeys is to add at least a quarter more time to your estimate. For example, if you normally aim to get to the airport an hour before your flight (which most airlines recommend you do), allow yourself an hour and 15 minutes during busy holiday times. Adding some extra time "padding" will help you avoid stressful rush scenarios or, worse yet, missed flights or trains.

Put technology to work for you
Technology can't completely erase the stress of travel, but it can make your journeys easier and help you save time. Travelling by plane? Check in online and print your boarding pass before you even set foot in the airport. You'll avoid long lines at agent-assisted check-in counters and, if you're not checking luggage, can go right to security when you arrive. (If you are checking luggage, you'll often be able to hand it off to an agent at a designated spot for passengers who've already checked in.) Your airline's Web site will have information about online check-in policies and procedures.

Travelling by car? If you're driving on toll roads, look into getting a Fast Track pass. The name of the pass varies by region, but the function is the same: stick the device to the inside of your windshield and each time you drive through a toll booth, your Fast Track account will automatically be charged for the amount of the toll. No more waiting in long lines to pay an agent or having to worry about whether you have the correct change on hand.

Wherever your holiday travels take you, chances are you'll still hit some traffic, will get stuck behind the fellow who reclines his airplane seat for the duration of your five-hour flight, or will have to wade your way through a crowded airport or train station. But by putting these three organized travel tips to work, you'll buy yourself a bit of relaxation, will avoid unnecessary stress, and can focus more on the joy of where you're going and less on the process of getting there.