How to be Present when You’re With Family

Five ways to keep your attention where you want it most

If you ask people to name a few of their favorite things about the holidays, “time with family” ranks consistently towards the top of most lists. The decorations, good food, and festive music are all the merrier when we can share them with the people who matter the most to us.

I started to write something here about technology bringing us together, but also making it easier than ever to be a wedge that drives us apart. There’s an element of truth to that, which makes it so easy and seductive to pile on the fist-shaking, technology-is-ruining-our-lives bandwagon.

Technology is an amplifier—it’s a tool that lets you do more. The problem is attention management. We don’t get the benefits of time with family—the deposits we’re trying to make can end up being severe withdrawals—unless we’re intentional about being giving them our attention, too.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / vectorfusionart

  1. Take a break from being connected. Your phone may fit in your pocket, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place you can put it. Put it high on a shelf, or face down, so you can’t see the screen as you walk past it. Turn on Do Not Disturb so you can’t hear it buzz, chirp, and vibrate as notifications come in.

  2. Set expectations before you leave the office. Even if the entire company is shutting down, set an email auto-reply before you leave. In it, be clear: you’re not going to have access to email while you’re gone and you’ll get back to them when you return. If your situation permits, let them know you’re going to delete all the messages you received while you were out so you can return to a clean slate. If people know you’re unavailable, they won’t text or call you when you don’t respond to their email. You also give them tacit permission to take a break themselves.

  3. Put family time on your calendar. Take a look at the days you have off. You’re planning on spending time with family, right? Did you actually put those times on your calendar? Or did you just leave blank space where your regular routine used to be?

    I understand—it’s nice to decompress and get away from the calendar when you’re on vacation. But in order to protect that time, you need to schedule it. The big rocks go on your calendar first and you need to let others—and yourself, sometimes—know that your time is already promised to someone.

  4. Defend your time offstage. Emergencies come up, but if it can wait, it should. If an email or text message or phone call makes it through, acknowledge it and get back offstage as quickly as you can. Snooze the email until a later date. Take a message. Create a task to get back to them. You’re offstage. You’ll be back onstage soon enough.

  5. Make time with family a habit. Planning time together for a solid one- or two-week block every year is good, but what about the other fifty weeks of the year? Do you put as much planning into taking your daughter out for ice cream or playing catch with your son? Do you have regular date nights? Build them into your schedule. These are big rocks; schedule around them. As time with family becomes a habit, your brain will start to realize that this is where your attention needs to be.

The holidays are a natural time to reflect on the year that’s past and reconnect with your vision for who you want to be. Are you happy with the direction you’re heading? If not, adjust your sails. Set a new course for the new year.

Don’t be so focused on where you’re headed that you lose touch with where you are now. Your family enjoys your company. When you’re with them, be present. Your time and attention are the best gifts you can give them.

Question: How do you protect the time you’ve set aside to be with your family? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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