From Spotlight: Ready for the Holidays?

7 Tips for a Perfect Holiday Home for Not-So-Perfect People

Here’s how to cope with your never-ending to-do list.

Broken gingerbread cookie on baking tray
Image: Wollertz/Paper Street Design/Shutterstock

Whoa, December.

You have 27 holiday parties to attend, a nine-hour baking marathon, and oh yeah, the kids are out of school and underfoot.

Spending time on your house may not be your highest priority, even if you do plan to serve up a holiday feast for 12 or have overnight guests peering into closets. We recommend that instead of aspiring to be Martha Stewart's protégé, you unabashedly cheat your way through the holiday season. "Martha Stewart has staff," says professional organizer and organizing coach Melinda Massie. "Stop the psychological torture of comparing yourself to her."

Here's how to keep your home respectable with minimal trauma (and maybe even enjoy the season while you're at it).

1. Embrace the List

Begin the holidays with a brain dump, listing every single itsy-bitsy, annoying task you need to handle between now and New Year's. Taxes? Dealing with child care? Decorating your front yard? Buying gifts? Cleaning the windows? The Q4 rush back at the (sigh) office?

Then, "go back through the list and remove everything you don't have to do," says Massie.

Prioritize the home-related tasks that actually matter and ditch the ones that don't. That said, you'll probably want to go deeper with cleaning (but within reason; see No. 4) if you're entertaining guests from outside your immediate family.

2. Cheat Your Way to a Great-Smelling Home

Great-aunt Tilda's rosemary roll recipe always makes the house smell lovely — but who has time for all the kneading and rising in December?

There's an easy way to give your house that just-baked scent: Simmer vanilla, lemon, and thyme in a pot on the stove — no baking needed.

Even better, make your sneaky simmer part of the party. Massie recommends warming something delicious in your Crock-Pot. Try mulled cider, which requires only apple cider, a few spices, and rum or brandy — if you're feeling daring.

"This will make the whole house smell good while not taking up an extra burner on the stove, and give you something delicious to enjoy," Massie says.

3. Don't Sweat Your Kids' Mess

"Let go of putting every single toy away each night before bed," says Didi Wong, an integrative wellness and life coach.

"The kids are on vacation, and when they wake up, the fun begins all over again," she says. So let junior revel in his freedom and scatter his toys across his room or some other designated area. That's at least one less battle a day, right?

4. Focus on the Obvious When You Clean

OK, that's stating the obvious. But sometimes you need to give yourself permission for everything to not be perfect.

"Of course you want a clean home, but you don't need to clean every closet and shelf," says professional organizer Robyn Reynolds.

Instead, focus on the places your guests will see and use. Clean hand towels in the bathroom along with a sparkling sink and toilet are obvious places to concentrate on.

5. Outsource Some Jobs

You might be a die-hard DIYer, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything.

"Outsource anything you're not good at or comfortable with," says Massie. "The investment will be well worth the savings of time and sanity."

Professional cleaners can do in a few hours what would take you days. And if you really want those lights strung outside, there are people for that, too. So maybe you spend a little less on gifts this year, but more on your family's ability to enjoy home over the holidays. Totally worth it.

Outsourcing doesn't always have to have dollars attached. It could be teaming up with friends and family. Maybe a friend of yours who's got that handyman knack but no baking skills will be willing to string your lights in exchange for some holiday treats you're making anyway? That's a win-win.

Related: Solar Lights vs. LED Lights

6. Give Artificial Trees a Chance

It's time to get over your holiday tree nostalgia. Sure, tromping out to the woods with Dad to pick out the perfect fir was a delight, but back then, you weren't the one who had to keep the thing watered all month and sweep up the fallen needles every night.

Artificial trees come in a variety of natural-looking shapes and sizes. Or go all out with silver, gold, even fluorescent pink! Bonus: When you reuse the same tree year after year, you're actually doing something nice for the earth (especially if you buy yours secondhand). Miss the evergreen smell? That's what scented candles are for.

7. Keep It Real

If your big family dinner comes and the ham is on fire and your dog peed in the living room and little Mackenzie won't stop banging her darn blocks against the window, don't panic. Wonderful days have been salvaged from worse. Guests only care that you're together.

"If you approach the event with good intentions, it may not turn out to be exactly what you envisioned, but your family and guests will still thank you and be appreciative of your time and effort in putting together such a wonderfully festive get-together," says Wong.

Related: Holiday Cleaning: Tips for a Guest-Ready Home

Author photo of writer Jamie Wiebe
Jamie Wiebe

Jamie Wiebe is a writer and editor with a focus on home improvement and design. Previously, she worked as a web editor for "House Beautiful," "ELLE Decor," and "Veranda."