If you graphed annual fluctuations in stress, this time of year would correlate to the peaks. This month, on top of life's regular load, you have gifts to buy, cards to write, parties to attend and end-of-year business tasks to handle.

While this is a wonderful season and no one should whine too much about shopping and party hopping managing it all can be a challenge.

In theory, home-based work eases stress by enabling people to juggle personal and professional tasks. In my opinion, the theory doesn't translate into reality during the holidays.

Instead, the reverse occurs because the "freedom" of working at home tempts a lot of people to multitask. Deliveries arrive with more frequency during work hours; kids' activities pull us away from work; and decorating, shopping and food preparation are crammed into already busy days.

Before you stop humming and start humbugging, use these tips to prevent holiday stress from ruining the fun in your home office:

>Accept your priorities. Assuming work is your priority in the home office, don't expect yourself to accomplish many holiday tasks during the workday.

If taking care of personal items during work hours helps you to juggle, fine. Otherwise, remind yourself that you don't have to accomplish personal tasks during the workday any more than someone who works in a corporate office park does.

- Focus. Dividing your time between too many activities will leave you feeling as if nothing is getting the attention it needs.

If end-of-year work responsibilities and deadlines start to overwhelm you, commit to spending an uninterrupted hour on one task. This hour may turn into two, and then a completed project. If not, at least you've made a start.

In your personal life, take an afternoon or day off to take the kids to see Santa, shop or do other holiday activities. Designating time for these outings, rather than hoping they will fit into a "slow work afternoon," may lower stress.

- Ask for what you need. When you're under stress, it's easy to imagine that other people are intentionally ignoring your needs or making things more difficult.

Try to remember that other people are cramming a lot into December, too, and that most people who aren't doing what you want probably don't know what you need. Make specific requests of coworkers and family members. You'll be able to relax after you know someone is overseeing these items.

- Find something to chop off of your list. For example, if you want to host a holiday dinner, consider buying prepared food. Get things gift wrapped instead of handling wrapping yourself. Buy cookies for Santa instead of baking them.

Accepting that holiday projects might not get as much attention as you'd like can be difficult, but maintaining peace of mind should be high on your priority list this season.

- Hire help. Many people are looking for extra cash this time of year, so check your to-do list for items that you can pay someone else to handle. For example, hire a house-cleaning service to come in once a week during the holidays or look for temp home-office help to reduce your business workload.

- Laugh. This is one piece of advice not to ignore. Medical research suggests that laughter lowers heart rate and blood pressure, eases pain and diffuses anger. It can also make us more creative problem-solvers. Whether you read the daily comics or sign up for an online, humor newsgroup, you should find time to chuckle.

- Limit your socializing. Prioritize work-related parties and attend only those that are most critical. A polite refusal to some invitations probably won't negatively impact a business relationship. If you absolutely have to attend an overwhelming number of events, make an excuse and duck out early.

Gift-Giving Made Simple

Who, what, where, when, why and how make up the journalists' framework used to research and prepare articles. This framework guides writers to help ensure that they don't overlook important details when reporting stories.

This holiday season, my staff and I have decided to use this tactic to track holiday gifts for our clients and business partners.

Last year, despite the best intentions and a desire to thank important clients, we left the shopping until late December, and in our rush almost overlooked some critical details. Our late start also cost us express delivery fees and time spent scrambling to pull it together.

This year we plan to use the "five W's and an H" to better manage the gift-giving process. Here is a list of how each word can help define your needs so you can create a gift-giving framework:

- Why. The "why" should be consistent across all gifts: to thank clients for their business, or partners for their contributions to your company. Gifts for staff members serve a similar purpose by giving something back to a team that has made your success possible.

- Who. One of the most difficult elements of business gift-giving is determining who makes the list.

First, create a list of clients and vendors. We sometimes look through our check register and company server. This reminds us of key clients who we may have worked with at the beginning of the year and who may have fallen from our radar.

Don't feel as though you have to give a gift to every business partner on the list; you may decide to give only to your biggest clients and perhaps to those who have helped you in key areas. You may also want to include people who have referred business to you.

- What. Appropriate gifts are not controversial, too personal or excessively expensive. Cash is a no-no since it might be misconstrued as a bribe, but gift certificates may be just fine. Meaningful gifts are the best kind, so base gifts on client interests whenever possible. If you're buying a gift for a team of people, rather than one person, send something that can be shared easily.

- Where. For the past two years, I've done a lot of my shopping online. This season many e-vendors are offering free shipping, extra discounts and free products with purchases. If you own an online business, I recommend shopping almost exclusively through the Internet. By practicing what you preach, you send an important message.

- When. For gifts to have the intended impact, they need to arrive at the right time. Vacation schedules can foil a thoughtful thank you if clients or key team members are not in the office to receive gifts. Check vacation schedules before determining your gift's arrival date. Also, factor in time needed for internal routing of gifts from a mailroom or messenger drop-off center.

- How much. What's the right price range for a corporate gift? I wish I had an easy equation, but this decision is often a matter of instinct. The right price will not stretch your budget to the breaking point but will still be a measure of your appreciation. If you need to protect your bottom line, keep this tip in mind: A meaningful gift is valuable regardless of price.

Once you've sent the gift, you can make sure it arrived by following up with an administrative person at the recipient's office. That enables you to confirm delivery without asking your client directly, which could appear to be an appeal for a thank you.

Alice Bredin is author of the "Virtual Office Survival Handbook" (John Wiley & Sons) and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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