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For many years, I was the official "cookie baker" for my family’s holiday get-togethers. Chocolate chip cookies were my specialty, but I dabbled in sugar, chocolate, apple, creamy fillings, and other gourmet styles, too.

As the years passed, and I became busier at work, I grew less entranced with the prospect of baking dozens of cookies under enormous time constraints. In fact, to me, baking cookies for the holidays became a duty, not a pleasure. Then came the year when I was up past midnight completing the task. I was irritated and snappy. The next day, I grumbled to my husband that this had to stop. "I’m too busy to bake all these cookies!" I complained. And, cleverly, I thought, I asked him to call my mother and tell her that I was no longer going to bake cookies. He declined.

The next year, as cookie-baking time approached, I girded myself, picked up the phone and said, "Ma, I’ve made a decision. I’m just too busy. This year, I’m not going to bake cookies. I’m going to buy them instead."

I’d expected a long, sad silence, followed by, "All right, dear," or some similar, kindly worded phrase that left me feeling inadequate and guilty. Instead, do you know what my mother said? "Sounds smart!"

And in that one flash of a moment, I learned an important lesson. I learned that what I’d perceived as an obligation had never, in fact, existed at all. My family thought I liked baking cookies. And I did! I just didn’t like having to bake them. I’d volunteered once, then a second time, then a third, until finally it became an expected part of family get-togethers. I could have stopped any time, but I didn’t think I could The sense that it was a non-negotiable duty was all in my own head.

I recall that story a lot when I’m struggling with time management issues. I really, really want to spend my time doing things I value—not doing things other people value—or doing things because I think other people value them—or doing things that have become part of a tradition simply because they’re been done in the past.

That’s pretty unconventional thinking, I know. Most people value traditions for their own sake. I don’t. I value traditions for the deeper meaning they convey to me at that moment in time. And those deeper meanings shift as my circumstances and needs change.

For instance, I used to decorate like a wild woman for every holiday. I don’t anymore. For Halloween, as an example, I’d suspend paper skeletons from the ceiling in front of windows, adding backlighting so they’d glow eerily as they fluttered, and I’d hung a metal wreath of black cats with raised backs on the front door. To say nothing of the spiders and cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns! Now I put a few mini-pumpkins on the fireplace mantle and call it a day.

Why the change? I liked my big-time decorations—a lot. It was fun to do and fun to live with. I don’t do it anymore because I don’t need the joy the decorations provided to fill a void and I’d rather spend my time doing other things.

During the period when I’d decorated every nook and cranny of my apartment, I was enduring a tough time in my life—my mother had died, my brother had died, my beloved cat had died, and I’d gotten divorced after a 20-year marriage—all within a year or so. Decorating provided joy during a joyless time.

Things are different now. I’m happily remarried and doing work I adore. For the moment, all is well in my world.

Time—we all have only so much of it. If you’re like me, you strive to spend it wisely, by your own definition of "wise." But if you bake cookies for the holidays, may I please have one?

Your thoughts? I’d welcome your comments.

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