It only happens once a year, that magical week between Christmas and New Year.  And for those who continue working in between holidays, it’s definitely slower.  More colleagues, customers and partners are out of the office, more recurring meetings are cancelled, and we consequently have more lightly-scheduled days than normal.

How you use that time is completely up to you.  It would be easy to reactively handle email, take a long lunch, and linger too long in your RSS reader.  But we both know, if you’ve chosen to stay in the office this week, there are better things to do.

Here are at least ten things you can do in the quieter days leading up to New Year’s Day to help you accelerate through the curve and come back January 2nd ready to take on the world.

Finish a big project.  Something (or several things) on your plate have been sitting there for longer than expected.  You haven’t had time to get them done, or haven’t taken the time to break that project down to the individual steps it will take to get it off your desk.  Now’s the time to do just that.  Pick a project (or two, no more than that), and set an aggressive goal to get it done in the next couple days.  Shut your door, turn off email, and focus.  If you pick the right project, you’ll be far better off with this done and producing results for you next week.

Plan a big project.  Every one of us has a list of projects that sound great, but have no next steps attached to them.  They’re typically complex projects that just need a little planning, need some immediate next steps and deadlines.  Even the most complex projects have a very simple next step to get them rolling.  Figure out what those next steps are for you – today, tomorrow and next week even.  Get the ball rolling this week and you’re far more likely to get the whole project done faster.

Get organized.  This is a great time to finally implement a more successful organizational or productivity system for yourself.  Especially if you’re decided you like the approach of Getting Things Done, for example, but haven’t yet had time to implement it, block the next couple days and make it happen.  This may feel like “preparing to work” vs. getting actual work done, but I guarantee the rest of your week (and your New Year) will be far more productive if you invest the time to do this now.

Clean.  Stacks on your desk, random magazines on your bookshelves, clutter that distracts you from what needs to get done.  You just hope there’s nothing in the middle of that stack that needed to be completed last week.  Take the time this week to clean it all up, get it organized, and extra credit for creating and/or implementing an organizational system or strategy that keeps this clutter from happening again.

Improve your work environment.  Is your workspace set up in the most effective way?  Should your desk face a different direction, do you need a whiteboard on the wall, a printer within arm’s reach, a headset for your phone?  This is a great time to consider how you might more effectively work, and ensure you have the set-up and tools to do it.  This includes software, Web tools, subscriptions, whatever you need.

Networking.  Who are the people and organizations you’ve lost touch with over the past year?  Make a list, and focus time this week to get back in touch.  You don’t need a reason – just a quick “reflecting on the past year and thought of you” kind of message will work great.  If your contact is out this week, they’ll still appreciate seeing your email or voicemail when they return.  And if they are in this week, you might just get a faster response and reconnection.

Inbox Zero.  Even if you don’t implement a proactive email inbox management strategy right away, work this week to declutter the one informational interface you likely use more often than others throughout the day and workweek.  Take the time to sort, file or respond to as many relevant emails as possible.  Delete the rest.  Don’t be afraid to declare “email bankruptcy” and start from scratch, especially for that backlog of email newsletters you’ve been meaning to get to (but, let’s face it, you just won’t as they keep piling up).

Spend an afternoon (or day) alone with your thoughts.  Give yourself the gift of your own mini-retreat.  Take with you a handful of things you’ve been meaning to brainstorm or think about.  It could be your professional goals for the new year, it could be a new project or opportunity that simply needs your creative thinking to get started.  Find a quiet coffee shop (without wifi) where you can ensconce yourself and just think for awhile.

Dream.  Where do you really want to go?  What would you really rather be doing not just this time next year, but in 3-5 years?  If you never have time to think that far ahead, this is your time.  This could be related to a product or brand you help manage, it could be related to the business you own or run, or it could be related to your career or personal life.  Think big, think beyond what you can comprehend or plan for immediately.  Worry about implementation and next steps later, but document your ideas and thought process so you can sort, prioritize and consider what happens next.

Recharge.  Focus too much of the next few days on the list above and you’ll likely get back to the office on January 2nd without the energy you’ll need to face the onrush of work, opportunities, fire drills and other distractions that will inevitably come.  Take an afternoon and take in two matinee movies.  Stay home and catch up on whatever’s on your DVR.  Take that long lunch.  Just do these things intentionally, and be ready for the big year ahead.

That’s my list.  What’s on yours?