Some 23 million people hit the stores on Christmas Eve last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. For some, this last-minute gift shopping is a tradition, an annual ritual of braving the mall crowds to be swept up in the holiday frenzy. For many others, though, it's the stressful byproduct of a to-do list as long as Santa's and the desire for perfection.
"Many people who procrastinate use it as a mechanism to cope with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision," says Dr. Soroya Bacchus, a board-certified psychiatrist. "What's curious is that procrastinating in response to anxiety actually creates more anxiety for that person in the long run."
Last-minute shoppers may have a "good" reason to postpone that trip to the mall -- e.g., waiting for the sales, looking for the perfect deal online or haven't decided on a gift yet -- but their hesitation likely has more to do with insecurity and perfectionist tendencies.
"They worry about whether or not the person they are shopping for will like the gift they buy or that the recipient will judge them based on how much money they spent," Bacchus says. "Others have feelings of intense anxiety related to getting everything done for the holidays: the cooking, the cleaning, the dealing with the in-laws. It can be a lot to handle all at once."
That drive to create the perfect holiday experience translates into the perfect storm of anxiety and stress, Bacchus says. Is this the perfect gift? What if they get me a nicer, more expensive present? What if it goes on sale next week? And why start shopping when the decorating isn't done?
"Trying to make sure everything is just right will cause you to spend too much time on one item when you have 10 things on your plate, and to-dos like shopping can be pushed to the last minute," Bacchus says.
Want to avoid the gift-list stress? Stop thinking, and start doing. Forget about getting it perfect. Just get it done. Follow these five steps to get a head start on your holiday shopping:
1) Make a list. Do a bit of brainstorming a few weeks before the shopping season starts. Make a list of those you wish to buy gifts for, and come up with two or three ideas for each person, ideas you can realistically afford.
"Do this quickly; don't over-think it; and don't take a break until you have at least one idea for each person," says Toni Coleman, licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach. "Let yourself really go with this, writing down anything that occurs to you. Every gift does not have to have the same monetary value -- and avoid even thinking that you 'should spend' a certain amount."
2) Break it down. Make your list more manageable by breaking it down into several shopping trips or Internet sessions. Vow to grab one gift each time you run errands, or start surfing for deals on Black Friday with a resolution to purchase one item online each day until you're done.
The point is to set aside specific times to tackle that to-do list.
"This helps to get it mapped out in a way that there are minimal trips to the store and time spent searching online or off," Coleman says. "Put the time you will dedicate to this task on your schedule like any important appointment or event."
3) Get moving. Give the gift list and schedule some thought -- but don't over-think it. Once you have a few ideas on paper, start taking action. Make a point to make one purchase that day.
"A little bit of planning can help you reach your goals, but a lot of planning and thinking tends to have the opposite effect," Bacchus explains. "By simply taking action, you are guaranteed to find yourself further down your shopping list than if you had not."
Plus, you'll have an instant feeling of accomplishment. Checking off one item on your list will likely feel so good that you'll want to do it again.
4) Stand firm. Once you've made a decision, don't second-guess yourself.
"Many procrastinators find themselves struggling with gift ideas and end up shopping at the last minute because they can't decide on the best gift or keep changing their minds. Once you decide on something, get it," Bacchus says.
"In the grand scheme of things, a gift is just a gift," she says. "It's a gesture of kindness. It is not the end-all of decisions, and chances are the recipient will appreciate the thought more than the actual gift itself."
5) Make it fun. Gift buying doesn't have to be a grueling ordeal. Schedule a shopping day with friends or family, and plan a nice lunch or dinner afterward. Having others relying on you to show up will eliminate any urges to postpone, and having something to look forward to will keep your mind off the hassle of long lines and decision-making, Coleman says.
If you must shop alone, reward yourself with your favorite latte, an indulgent snack or a pre-Christmas stocking stuffer.
"When you finish buying gifts for someone else, pick up a little something for yourself as a personal high-five for accomplishing your goals," Bacchus says. "It may sound selfish, but the prospect of personal gain always incites feelings of motivation."