6 Ways to Be More Present During the Holidays (or Anytime!)

Do you remember life before the internet? If you weren’t around back then, let me outline some of the more charming bits: when we would go out to dinner or gather for meals, we would immediately dig in to our food rather than take photos of it; when we made plans to hit the town with friends, we had to be punctual or everyone would be gone; we wrote letters to people we cared about—friends we met at camp, aunts and uncles overseas—and we mailed holiday cards, and got to keep the ones we received. We spoke on the phone and practiced the art of verbal communication on a daily basis. If we had to wait for a bus, we would daydream, or talk to whomever else was waiting there too. And when we wanted the news, we had to rely on investigative journalism published in real newspapers.

Needless to say, things have changed!

Regardless of how fondly you remember the olden days, you may have noticed your own growing attachment to your phone–to the dings, the likes and follows of social media, the stream of updates on your news feed. And if you are anything like me, you may also be increasingly weary of the fast, easy, and superficial networks that replaced the more direct human interactions that came before. Notice how your phone has slipped in to fill spaces, and you’ll also begin to see how much opportunity you have to choose something different. Consider this a case for going “old school.”

When You’re With People, Be With People

The thing I miss the most about the time before phones is the way people kept one another company. My heart sinks every time I’m at a restaurant and I see a table of friends (or even a couple) with their heads dropped to the light in their hands rather than fully investing in their companionship. Make a deal with loved ones: when you go out, phone-checking is a no-no. When you sit down for a shared feast, consider yourself unavailable. Remember that the people you are with won’t be here forever and their company should be treasured.

When you’re in public, talk to others, smile, make eye contact. In the grocery check-out line, keep your phone in your pocket and chat with the cashier or the person behind you in line instead. Give a thoughtful compliment. Minimize the urge to multi-task and text while someone is telling you about their day. Be present when you’re present.

Read Paper

When I was in Paris this summer, I was struck by the most unusual sight: I strolled by a queue of people waiting for a film, and nearly everyone had their noses in books. They read in line for the art galleries, on benches in parks, at restaurants alone. It was hard for me to remember the days when people did anything but stare at their phones!

Allow your brain to ease out of the instant-gratification, quick-fire mode of scroll and tap, and grab a real book—if you haven’t read one in ages, head to your local independent bookstore or library and ask for a recommendation. Books can offer such profound insights into the human condition, and they make us feel less alone in the world. Challenge your brain to focus on the slow-build of a storyline, on the beauty of well-constructed sentences; pick up a paper and read the nearly forgotten art of long-form journalism. Research has shown that we are more impatient readers, have more difficulty retaining what we’ve read, and feel more mentally exhausted when we read from a screen. Keep your phone out of reach, and when the nagging brain tells you it’s time to check online—it will, I promise—STOP! Take a breath, and get back to your book.

Write Cards and Letters—With a Pen

Do you remember the feeling of receiving a hand-written letter in the mail? What a rare joy in the time of one-liner emails or texts pinging back and forth. It’s not only in the receiving of the letter that we experience those unique feelings, but in the crafting of one as well.

Selecting beautiful stationary, a card, or the right pen is a pleasure in itself, and in the time we invest in writing to a special friend or family member, we hold the person in our hearts and minds. Even though this is such a busy time of year, prioritize this fading custom and remind yourself of what your handwriting looks like! Rather than the impersonal e-card, or the mass messaging of holiday wishes, personalized correspondence helps to reinforce bonds and make us feel closer, even across long distances. And they give us something to keep. I still have cards and letters that were sent to me as a child, and the feeling I get when I look through them is a gift in itself.

Use Your Brain to Take the Pictures

Create memories with your senses, not your camera. Research has shown that when we document every special moment by taking snapshots, we actually relax the request for our brains to remember the event, and down the road what we recall is not the special moment itself, but the record of it. We are distancing ourselves from our own memories when we ask the photographs to do the work for us.

Next time you’re at a recital, play, or concert, fight the urge to record everything. When you sit down at a beautifully-presented meal, bear witness to the art of it, and awaken your senses to the experience. Rather than the usual photographic play-by-play which takes us out of the moment, consider taking one snap at the end of a meal, curtain call, or a night out to give you something to look back on later.    

Swap Handheld for Tabletop Games

Once in a while, trade in those solitary sagas of Candy Crush, or your online Scrabble match, and gather people together around a table for a game night. Adults often don’t set aside enough time for play, and when we get together, we can fall into familiar patterns of talking about the same things we always talk about. Creating a new context around a group activity allows us to feel a release from the pressures of conventional conversation, and we come together around a shared experience. Card games, board games, charades, it doesn’t really matter—just enjoy one another’s company.

Rethink What is Means to Wait

Many of us unconsciously reach for our phones the instant we know we’ve got a wait ahead of us. If you keep your screen tucked away, this is an opportunity to get creative, foster your imagination, or be social.

Maybe the best plan for you is to carry a book, newspaper, or magazine, and you too can read in line like a Parisian! Or, if you knit, do as my mother did and bring along balls of yarn and knitting needles so you can chip away at your projects on the go. Tuck a crossword puzzle in your bag for unexpected delays, and don’t look up answers on your phone! Talk to the people around you. For those anticipated waiting-room moments, take a notebook or journal, write out those letters or cards, or sketch what you see. And when all else fails, don’t be afraid of boredom. Welcome the pauses as an opportunity to absorb your environment, to be mindful and fully present. Remember what it is like to get lost in a daydream.

This holiday, give yourself permission to set aside the screen and connect with the people around you—be with others, notice the beauty around you with your own presence of mind, reach out, be creative in the spaces so reflexively filled with shallow distraction. Our brains need a rest and our hearts need each other, now more than ever.


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