5 Ways to Project Manage Your Way Through the Holidays

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Posted: Dec 3, 2015

The holiday season is here, and it's the most wonderful time of the year…right? It’s a time for family, food, and festivities, but there’s also a lot of preparatory work that goes into every celebration—gifts need buying and wrapping, guests need hosting, meals need cooking. With so much going on, it can be hard to wrangle all the moving pieces. Not to worry! Here are some tips from a seasoned project manager to help you survive the holidays with your sanity intact. 

1. Make your list and check it twice 

It may seem like a tedious task, but writing down what you need to do and when you need to have it done is critical. A simple to-do list ensures you’re not scrambling last minute to buy a gift for the cousin you forgot was flying in or the friend who just had a baby. Identifying how much you can spend on each person in advance and tracking that on your check list will help keep you from going into debt as well. Regularly return to your list, and tick off completed tasks to keep yourself on track and prepared for any surprises. Sure, a list can’t save you in a crisis but it can help prevent a holiday crisis from happening in the first place.

2. Manage your holiday meal timeline

I cook once a month, if that, so large, family dinners are incredibly intimidating to me. It isn’t about making the individual dishes—it is about getting everything done, at the same time, in a small, tight, environment. This is where a project manager’s workplan comes into play. Sketch out how long each dish—or each stage of the dish—will take, what appliance is needed and at what temperature, and what ingredients are needed, to keep your kitchen as stress-free as possible. The key point? Doing this in advance. Work out your plan before you start to cook, so you can go into your kitchen with a system in place.

3. Facilitate dinner conversation 

The scramble to get ready for the big celebratory family gathering can be a headache, but the real challenge is that everyone enjoys themselves. There’s nothing worse than awkward dinner conversation (except for maybe complete, uncomfortable silence). So be proactive in getting people talking. There’s no need to have index cards and talking points on hand, but a few well-worn conversation starters never hurt any party. And if you’re feeling a bit daring, our favorite office icebreaker is two truths and one lie.

4. “I want it now!”—your most demanding client

Kids are a tough crowd. You’ve got your picky eaters, the toddlers who get fussy without nap time, and the angst-ridden pre-teens who just want everyone to know they’re grown up, too. While there’s only so much you can do to keep the youngest—and most demanding—customer happy, it’s helpful to make sure the kids also have things to keep themselves preoccupied. Board games are a crowd pleaser and can get everyone involved. (Apples to Apples and CLUE are favorites in my home, and are great for people of all ages.) Or you can have a few family-friendly movies on hand! Pop on a DVD and you’ve bought yourself a good two hours.

5. Post-holiday debriefs 

When you’re coordinating gifts, food, and people, there may be a few bumps on the road. No matter what happens, it’s always good to take time out and assess what worked…and what didn’t. A good project manager always makes sure that after a contract closes, the team comes together, steps back, and thinks of ways to improve. After you’ve washed the dishes and said goodbye to the last dinner guest, consider what can be done differently next holiday season, and most importantly, reflect on the great moments shared with loved ones!

Chelsea is a project manager in Pyramid's Seattle office. A former journalist, she brings experience in daily news writing, online content creation, magazines, and broadcast. Her clients include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Washington Conservation Voters, Medina Foundation, and Fair Food Network. When she isn't writing, you can find her haunting the local library and obsessing over old jazz recordings.