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Use Backwards Planning to Enjoy Your Holidays!

As we turn the page to October things begin to get a bit scary – and I don’t mean Halloween! We are entering the Holiday Season. It can be quite a hectic time between now and the end of this year. To keep events under control, try something we call backwards planning.

Most of our clients celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and/or Hanukkah and New Year’s. Most of these holidays have deep family traditions. And as our families grow, new traditions are added.

It is easy to overcommit, overspend, and overeat at this time of year.

To avoid overdoing, use backwards planning

Start by:

  • Identifying the holiday traditions that you enjoy and that make the holiday season for you. It is also important to identify the traditions and obligations that you dread and that make you cranky.
  • Developing a vision of how each holiday should look and feel.
  • Then developing a plan by looking at that end vision and backward tracking each thing that needs to happen for your vision to become reality.

As you are developing this vision make sure that you also check in with all members of the family who are sharing this time with you. Your vision, your significant other’s vision, and your teenager’s vision might be quite different. Conversations and compromises all round will help but this must happen before the calendar is set.

Let me demonstrate how this looks using a Thanksgiving example

My Thanksgiving vision:

  • the house is tidy and decorated
  • preset the table with holiday decorations
  • the menu includes some favorite dish for everyone
  • the family gathers and each person shares something they are thankful for
  • after the meal some will watch TV, some will go outside to play, and some will help clean up and no one is upset by the choices made

This is pretty ambitious and will probably have modifications as the time approaches. But if this is my vision, I need to plan now for it to work.

Let’s look at this point by point.

the house is tidy and decorated

Great! So, who is cleaning and who is decorating and when? I will have my cleaning lady in the week before the holiday and then just try to hold things together after that. This may mean scheduling an extra cleaning session with her and giving her a generous bonus but it’s so worth it. I will do the decorating starting after Halloween. Then, I will solicit my son’s help to bring down needed decorations from the attic. We will put those dates on the calendar.

preset the table with holiday decorations

I will press off the tablecloth the week before and have it ready. The day before I will pull out all the special serving dishes and place them on the table. After I know where all of the plates and serving pieces go, then I will place any decorations.

the menu includes some favorite dish for everyone

The first part of this vision is knowing just who is coming. Invitations with requests for commitment will have gone out early in October. When I have the final list of attendees, I will ask what favorite dish makes their Thanksgiving special. Two weeks before the event I will put together the final menu. One week before I will put together my shopping list. I will delegate some of the food preparation to other family members. They will need to tell me what they need me to provide as far as ingredients, serving platters, and time to cook in the oven or stovetop.

the family gathers and each person shares something they are thankful for

I love this tradition. The only pre-planning here is that everyone knows it is going to happen. Some people like to actually write it out.

after the meal some will watch TV, some will go outside to play, and some will help clean up and no one is upset by the choices made

This is where some people get resentful. But if you have done your backwards planning and communicated ahead of time then there will be no surprises. You already know that certain members of the family must see that game. They have held off watching while the meal was served so let them at it now. Some people are ready to go out and shoot hoops or take a walk. Great! I have already gotten commitments from those who will be happy to help with the clearing up and the putting away of food. With several hands and a lot of chatter, it won’t take too long. I have prepared the refrigerator ahead of time to make room for storing leftovers.

Backwards planning is:

  • starting with the end vision in mind
  • listing everything that needs to happen to make that vision come true.
  • assigning dates for each task and if others are involved get their commitment and time frame. Be clear on this part. If someone asks if they can bring some rolls, don’t be vague with your response. If you want them to bring the rolls tell them how many you need and when to bring them.

Use this same backwards planning process for every holiday or party. Once you form a plan and put it on the calendar, you can relax and enjoy the holiday as well.

If you are struggling with developing  an organizational plan for the holidays or just want some help or accountability in following through with the plan, join Diane Quintana and me in our Clear Space for You virtual support group.

Jonda S. Beattie, Professional Organizer owner of Time Space Organization, and co-owner of Release, Repurpose, Reorganize. She is based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of four books as well as a retired special education teacher she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients.


  • Hi Jonda, I love this! I remembered saying before that I call it “reverse engineering”, so I found your previous blog post: “For a Stress-Free Holiday the Calendar is Your Best Friend”. I think they make a great pair of holiday-planning blog posts. This one says, “put it on the calendar”, but the previous one shows sample calendar entries. Happy Holidays-coming-up!

  • Seana Turner says:

    I pretty much do this every night with dinner. I start with whatever is not time sensitive, and do that as early as I can (e.g., set the table). Then work back to what I can do ahead (measure/chop), and finally end with the actual cooking.

    Knowing where you are going really does help, especially around the holidays when gatherings and meals might be more complex than normal!

  • I love the idea of backward planning…starting with the vision in mind. This is timely writing about the holidays because they will be here before we realize it. Just the other day, my brother asked if we were hosting Thanksgiving again this year. We’ve been hosting it for at least a decade if not longer. He was starting to think about travel plans, but I wasn’t in the planning mode yet. Guess what? I quickly got in the groove and my husband and I decided that “yes” we will be hosting again this year. That’s about as far as I got, other than purchase Thanksgiving napkins, which I found several weeks ago. Within the coming weeks, we’ll flush out our plans with the big vision in mind (as you suggested.) It’s one of my favorite holidays and I look forward to having our family together.

  • Julie Stobbe says:

    I use backward planning a lot as a time management tool. I look at my schedule and then start planning. Once it is written down I know when I need to start on the project. Or even better yet if I should say no this time.

  • Julie+Bestry says:

    I am SO with you. Whether it’s a holiday or a term paper, you have to start with the “due date” and work backward to make sure you’ve accounted for how much time everything needs. Too often, people only think about the due date and today’s date, and don’t account for how long everything in between will take, and how they interact!

  • Lisa Gessert says:

    Wonderful Blog! I always love to plan ahead so I too can enjoy the holidays!!

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