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4 Ways to Make Holiday Time into Family Time

With Thoughtful Planning, It Doesn't Have to Be a Season of Guilt

Giving loved ones the attention they deserve is difficult in the best of times, and it gets even harder in the whirl of work and social demands during the winter holidays. But be of good cheer. It’s still possible to make sure your loved ones receive the gift they treasure most: Your presence.

Here are some ways to carve out family time:

1. Hold the Reins on Gift-Giving

It’s easy to get swept up in the gift-shopping frenzy, but it takes time, energy and attention away from the very people to whom you want to express your love.

Professional organizer Debbie Lillard suggests planning gift lists early, then spreading the shopping process out over a few weeks. Create groups of people who can receive similar gifts. “For instance, all the grandparents are getting books, all the nephews are getting music gift cards, and all your kids are getting tickets to events,” she says. This minimizes the number of stores or websites to visit, and one person can make all the purchases at a given retailer at one time.

Another idea: Scale back the volume of gifts. One parent, Heather Holst-Knudsen Stanton would shower her now-nine-year-old daughter, Carly, with Christmas presents. “Now I get Carly a few things she really wants, and I spend less time shopping,” she says. Because guilty feelings about not having enough time with Carly motivated the excess of presents, trading shopping time for family time helped resolve both problems.

2. Keep Technology in its Place

Josh Nathan, an instructor at the Art Institutes in Colorado, teaches about the trend known as "nomophobia," or no-mobile-phone phobia, the fear of being without your smartphone. One key to maintaining interpersonal relationships during the holiday season, he says, is to “ensure part of your time involves taking time off from social networks and our devices.”

Wyatt Kash, a father of two teenagers in Potomac Falls, Va., agrees that gadgets have their place and time, although they can also help create intimacy when distance intervenes. “We work hard in our house to curb the tendency to retreat into our individual electronic worlds. However, that same technology also keeps us connected, and that helps us stay present with one another.” Kash texts his wife from work a few times a week, just to let her know he’s thinking of her. With their daughter away at college, he and his wife use an app for video calls.

3. Express Your Needs Honestly

Kelly Jayne McCann, a professional organizer and productivity coach, says it’s OK to let extended family and friends know how you really want to spend the holidays, even if it differs from years past. “If exchanging gifts with every family member has become a burden or you don’t want to go ‘home’ this year,” let people know in advance, she advises. “And don’t hesitate in voicing your desires. You may find you have plenty of company.”

Kim Kassnove, an education administrator who lives in South Orange, N.J., with her husband and two kids, says she's the only mother of young children on her team at work. She finds it helpful to be open about her family life to gain her colleagues’ support for taking the time she needs. As the holidays approach, she says she will rely on the support of her colleagues to help her get home early on the first night of Hanukkah.

4. Use Your Calendar to Prioritize

Although she specializes in teaching people about time management, Mitzi Weinman says that “managing time is an impossibility.” But people do have the power to manage themselves, and their approaches to situations that arise, she says. “One of the ways to make time for your partner, other important relationships and yourself — even though it may sound simplistic — is to block time out in your calendar,” she explains. “Most importantly, you must look at this time as a priority.”

Relationship coach Luis Congdon concurs. “When couples come to see me and complain they don’t have enough time together, I give them one simple tip, and it always works,” he says. “Schedule family nights and couple date nights and put them on all your calendars at work and home.” He says families and couples who schedule time together often end up spending more unscheduled time together, too.

During the holiday season, “schedule all you can, including family time, holiday prep and time to unwind from it all,” adds organizing expert Monica Friel, who advocates the judicious use of procrastination. “The holidays are hectic, so if some items can be postponed until January, put them off."

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