Did you get the most out of summer?

For those of you with kids, summer can be a crazy time. The are very few routines and the kids are off doing some activity or another while you continue working. Or perhaps you had some time off and managed to get away or had a supposedly relaxing stay-cation.

The big question, however, is: Did you have fun? Did the kids have fun?

We don’t have kids, but my holidays are always in August each year, so while I don’t have others relying on me to plan and deliver on fun times, I always reach September and ask myself whether I took advantage of the time off I had, or whether I could have gotten more out of the time away from work.

In July before finishing work, I came up with a list of possible things to do in August. With thirty-one days to fill, I wanted to have something to do every single day if we felt like it. Of course, we allowed ourselves to say “no way, not today!” and spend the day in bed, by the pool or reading a book in a nice patch of sun, but what I didn’t want to happen was what has happened all too often when we both have time off together.

Husband: What do you want to do today?

Me: I don’t know. How about you?

Husband: No idea.

(We both go back to our smartphones and surf around social media.)

Me (an hour later): So what are we going to do?

Husband (looking at the time): We have to go grocery shopping and then there’s that pile of laundry over there…

And nothing fun happens. It’s just another day.

So, to avoid this issue, I came up with thirty-five different things we could do. Some were one-off events, others were repeatable depending on how much we liked them, the weather, and who we were with.

We knew who would be visiting us when and who might invite us out on day-trips or weekends.

I thrilled to tell you that it was a total success. We’ve never had a better summer and it was a sort of stay-cation. Normally we go away on some big trip where we exhaust ourselves squeezing fun and sun out of every second, but this year we divided our time between our two apartments. We went to the beach, took bike rides, put on the rollerblades that have been collecting dust for the past ten years, and visited little towns that we’ve been talking about for ages about seeing. We also made time for friends, including those we rarely get to see except when everyone has time off.

Most importantly, we relaxed with intention. That is, we made the conscious decision to do nothing some days. Rather than falling into a lazy day by accident and feeling like we were missing out on the summer.

And now, I’m ready to go back to work and routines refueled and refreshed.

How about you? What sort of summer have you had?

How to be a good host: planning for house guests

We love to have people stay with us. In my case, it’s in my blood. My parents ran a B&B for years, not because they needed the money, but because they loved meeting new people and taking care of them (I was going to say “showing them a good time” but it wasn’t that sort of B&B).

However, being a great host requires a lot of planning, thought, and preparation if you and your guests are going to have a good time and not end up stressed out by the end of the visit.

There’s a great article over on The Kitchn about how to be a good host and we do quite a few of the things listed there, but I thought I’d put down exactly what we do to make our friends and family feel that staying with us is like going to a 5-star resort, and yet without exhausting ourselves.

We plan meals in advance

If people have full and satisfied tummies, they are much happier and more relaxed. We always discuss options and give our expected guests a few (but not too many) choices. Eat in or dine out? Any food allergies or preferences? We also know most of our guests well, so can plan around their favourite foods (for example, one friend always has sushi and strawberry mojitos waiting for her when she comes over).

We cook as much as we can before guests arrive

Our menus often center around food that can be prepared days (or at least hours) beforehand, giving us the freedom to be spend time with our guests. And if the food is last-minute only, we take turns playing host while the other busies himself in the kitchen.

A special breakfast is essential

There’s a reason B&Bs and breakfast buffets at hotels are so popular — nothing says vacation like taking time to sit and chat while eating a variety of sweet and savoury dishes and sipping at a cappuccino. As I said above, happy tummies equal happy guests. Unless your day starts with a tight schedule, don’t rush through breakfast. And if you do have to get going without that relaxing café con leche, how about take some previously prepared muffins along for the ride?

We come up with a list of possible excursions

There’s nothing worse than getting a bunch of people together and then saying “so what do you want to do?” No one knows, ever. No one wants to be the pushy one. No one wants to be the one to decide.

When we have guests, we either tell them the plan (so many people on holiday love not having to think), or we give them a list of (limited) options to choose from. By thinking of possible outings before guests arrive, no one ends up sitting on the sofa staring at the ceiling wondering why they came to visit you anyway.

A shower-sergeant is imperative

Early July there were six of us in our one-bathroom apartment in La Rioja. We had a winery visit at noon and we finished our slow-breakfast at 10:30. Six people needed to shower, do their hair and get ready to leave for 11:45. If we hadn’t chivvied them along, we would never have left. It’s quite amusing to see even the most sensitive and anger-prone people jump up and dash into the bathroom without complaint when they hear “Next!” shouted out in our best “parent-voice.”

It’s all about the details

This is something I’ve learned from my husband. Turn your guests’ stay into something luxurious and extraordinary by:

  • Giving each guest a little kit of amenities from those that you’ve collected from your own hotel stays.
  • Having a guestbook where you paste a Polaroid onto the page and get them to write something about their visit.
  • Showing them something special about your town/city that someone unfamiliar with the place would never see.
  • Playing a silly party game like musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Even the most serious adult will unwind and end up fighting for that last chair, believe me.

Let people help

In the past, whenever guests offered a hand, I always used to say no. They were guests and shouldn’t have to raise a finger. And yet, when I’m a guest in a friend’s house, if I don’t help out I feel selfish and uncomfortable. So, I’ve started saying “Yes, of course you can help, thanks!” Whether it’s cutting up some vegetables, helping me make the beds, or handing me clothespins while I hang up the beach towels, it deepens the bond between us and gives our hands something to do while we chat and catch up on each other’s lives.

Give people time to do nothing

This last point is the hardest one for us to have learned. We tend to believe that if our guests are sitting on the sofa playing with their mobiles, more or less in their own little worlds, it’s because we aren’t doing our jobs as hosts. But that’s not true, at all. Everyone needs to disconnect from interacting with each other. It’s exhausting being “on” all the time. And we’ve learned that this time is key for us as well. When we see that people are tuning out, we retire to the bedroom and take a well-needed nap, or slip into the kitchen to prepare a snack or some part of the next meal.

How about you? What do you do to make your guests’ stay memorable? Or what have you liked that someone else has done?

Post-vacation planning

Returning from holidays is always stressful, isn’t it?

Catching up with what you’ve missed, dealing with the dozens (or hundreds!) of emails, getting back into the rhythm of a routine, expectations from bosses and coworkers, the need to deal with employees who’ve gotten used to you not being around.

Sound familiar?

It almost makes you not want to go away on vacation.

It doesn’t have to be like that, however.

There’s a trick to getting ready for vacation that most of us miss. In planning our absence, we look at that last day before holidays as our objective: get everything organized so that people can cope without when we are gone. When we reach that day, we let out a big sigh and switch into relaxation mode blocking out the horrid reality of that eventual return to the office.

What if we change our focus a bit? Instead of focusing on the last day before our holidays, we should look at the first week we get back.

Take the last few days before you go away to get everything organized for your return. Consider how you are going to handle each of the following items:

  • How much time will you need to set aside each day to catch up on email and other communications? Block out that time now.
  • Who will you need to meet with to find out what has moved forward (or not)? Schedule those meetings before you leave.
  • What routines do you need to get back into? Slide into them slowly, adding one routine a day (gym, preparing lunches, etc…). If you have the chance, how about reintroducing them a few days before you start up at work again?

This year, I didn’t quite get everything planned before my last day (last Monday), so I took a few hours (rather randomly) in my first couple of days free to tie up a few loose ends and to better plan my return. Yes, it ate into my holiday a bit, but I’d much rather lose a few hours at the beginning of my time off so that I can thoroughly enjoy the rest of it and not return to work to chaos and stress.

Vacations are to relax and recharge. By planning your return, you can preserve all the tranquility you’ve created for yourself (in fact I think vacation planners should come with a post-vacation planning section). As an added bonus, by thinking beyond your last day and focusing on your first week back, you don’t need to worry about anything while you are gone. You can truly go on holiday, disconnecting from everything at work, even forgetting altogether that it exists.

Last-minute holiday preparation ideas

There are just five more days until Christmas. If you celebrate the holiday, are you finished with all your planning? Do you still have last-minute things you need to take care of? A few gifts on your list that you haven’t purchased yet? If so, you’re not alone. Many people tend to wait until the Saturday before Christmas to finish up their holiday shopping. Whether you get a thrill from getting it all done on Christmas Eve or you’ve just been a bit busy, here are some last-minute tips to help you get ready for the big day.

Shopping for gifts

Last-minute presents can actually be quite meaningful to the recipient even though they weren’t purchased ahead of time. Experience gifts are great because you can get creative (print your own pet sitting certificate, have someone sing a holiday song for your loved one ) and you don’t necessarily have to wrap them which will save you a bit of time. Other ideas include:

  • Baked goods
  • Digital book or digital magazine subscription
  • Erin’s audiobook Unclutter Your Life in One Week or any audiobook your recipient might enjoy
  • Gift card to a favorite restaurant or place to visit

If you choose to buy a physical gift, you can avoid the stores and shop online. Many online retailers offer a variety of shipping options, but be sure to confirm that they can indeed deliver your order by December 24. And, as usual, stick to your list so you don’t overbuy and clutter your home with unnecessary gifts.

Decorating your home or office

Holiday decor will bring a festive mood to any room. But, when you’re short on time, it probably won’t be possible to decorate your entire home or office, so select a few areas that you can easily add a few decorative items. A handful of candy canes in a glass bowl can be a simple (and yummy) way to bring a little holiday cheer to a space. Your efforts don’t have to be incredibly involved.

Preparing for holiday parties

If you plan on entertaining and hosting your own holiday party, consider asking your guests to bring their favorite dish or beverage. That will save some time on grocery shopping and reduce the time you spend cooking and cleaning up afterward. When you are in the kitchen, it will probably be helpful for you to cook something you’ve had success with making in the past so you don’t try to figure out how to make something new. And, if you’re going to have overnight guests, be sure you have clean towels, bed linens, and toiletries on hand — but now is not the time to redecorate the guest room.

Check out our 2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide for more ideas, and remember, no matter what you have left to get done, you also need to have fun and enjoy your time with friends and family.