Create more holiday harmony

How to create more holiday harmony.

First, take a deep breath, and take a look at your expectations. During the holidays, we often feel more stress than at other times of the year. It’s a time when we pack in more things than usual, we may have stressful family interactions, or we may miss loved ones even more. And it’s a time when the expectations we have for ourselves often veer into the magical and unattainable. We have visions of a happy family putting up decorations, singing, and laughing. Instead, we have kids who are fighting, no one helps you get the boxes out of the attic, and you’re exhausted from arguments and asking the family to help you before the morning is over.

Successful time management during the holidays is not about packing in more productivity. Instead, it’s about picking the things that matter and making space for them. Here is a four-step approach to help you reflect on how you can create more harmony this holiday season.

I. Decide

What is most important to you this holiday season? What are truly the most important things to you this holiday season? What will you look back on in 5 or 20 years and want to remember?

Next, how do you want to feel? Maybe it’s intense and busy, there’s a time for that. Or maybe it’s calm and peaceful. Maybe it’s hopeful and excited. Maybe just feeling neutral is all you can hope for this year. Now think about what you would need to do or not do to create those feelings. I encourage you to make a “to don’t” list. This is an agreement with yourself about what you will not do so that you can instead pursue more important things. By writing it down, you make it more concrete. You are setting boundaries to protect the thigs at the top of the list that really matter. Often nagging thoughts about what we should do can lead us to feel shame or guilt or to over-schedule ourselves and our families. It can be hard to resist that thought that you should make 5 dozen cookies, or you should drag your kids caroling at 9pm in 12-degree weather, or you should make hand-made gifts for all 30 colleagues. If you add those things to your “don’t list,” that can help you create more meaningful boundaries that protect your time and your sanity.

“The solution to an over-busy life is not more time. It’s to slow down and simplify our lives around what really matters.” – John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

II. Plan

Here is where you can take the priorities from step 1 and think about where they will fit in. When will you go see lights? When will you put up decorations? When will you shop and cook and prepare? You may find that a few more things fall from you “to do” list to your “to don’t” list. This year for me, I decided to put our big Holiday Party on my “to don’t” list. In fact, I wrote myself an email last year and scheduled it to arrive around now to remind myself to not let it slip back on the “to do” list. While I love having people over and baking and hosting, I decided it was taking too much time and mental energy away from being with my family (priority list item #1). So even though it’s a good thing, it wasn’t the top thing. And I moved it to the “to don’t” for the year.

Be selective and intentional with your planning. My family has certain traditions that we do and enjoy every year. We drive around and look at lights on Christmas Eve. We draw names for a gift exchange. We decorate cookies. Those things give the holidays their regular, reliable cadence of family time and sentiment.


Let your presence be the gift you give your loved ones this year.
Sure! But easier said than done. Breaking habits is hard. Instead, it can be easier to make new habits. Here are some ideas to practice:

  • Try monotasking when you can. Our brains are used to thinking about so many different things that we rarely think only about what we’re doing in the moment. Let yourself have the luxury of only thinking about what you’re doing.
  • Give yourself a vacation from your phone. This is the hardest one. It’s uncomfortable. And there is no faster way to see how deeply you are addicted to your own screen than by putting it away for an hour and watching how you feel. But try it, maybe just for an hour a night. Put all the phones away in a drawer, and persist through the discomfort to see what happens.
  • Let your mind wander. There is lots of research on how important it is to have times of boredom, when we are not listening, watching, or working on anything. We just let our minds wander. When you notice you have nothing to do, rather than doomscrolling on your phone, let you mind wander a while.

All three of the above suggestions will be uncomfortable. When we are used to multi-tasking, impulsively checking our 3 favorite apps, and used to being constantly entertained, the opposites feel bad. But by creating a few barriers to distraction when you are with your family, it may help you be more present with the things you are doing and the people you are with.

IV. Reflect

The end of the year is a natural time to start looking back and reflecting on what you loved, hated, were inspired by, were excited by, and what you want to change for next year.

It’s also a time to reflect on how we normally show up during the holidays. Many of us over-work and over-strive. We do so, probably from a combination of positive reasons, such as wanting to create joy for others, and negative reasons, such as shame at not having a hallmark-movie-Pinterest-worthy home or not being a great cook.

If you set the expectation of creating magic 24/7, it’s always going to be a letdown. Notice when you are telling yourself you should do something. Often there is a shame behind the should. When we say I should go to the gym or I should bake cookies for all the neighbors, often we are using shame as a motivator, meaning, if we don’t do it, we will shame ourselves for not meeting the expectations. Instead of the should, choose what you will do and own it. I’ve decided to go to the gym, or I’ve decided to stay home and rest. I’m going to make cookies. Or maybe I’m going to buy cookies at the store.

As a final reflection, pick one thing to learn and grow in this season, and one thing to let go of. This year, I want to grow in having time for silence, for stillness, for monotasking, for dreaming, and to be present for the holidays. I want to let go of the need to be busy to feel productive. This year, I want to create enough time to reflect, to connect, and to let my thoughts settle.

None of us know how many seasons of holidays we will have left. We can’t get more of them, we can only make the most of them. That doesn’t mean packing more and more into the last few weeks of the year. Instead, it means letting ourselves be present and freeing ourselves from the tedium of unnecessary shame and unrealistic expectations. Wishing you comfort and joy this season!

You can listen to more on this topic on a podcast I did with the Revitalizing Doctor podcast here.

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