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Dissertating with Balance in an Unbalanced World: 4 Proven Tips for Focus, Happiness, and Resilience | 
Issue 274

Summary: Gaining greater balance does not require big changes. Start small as you create momentum to boost your resilience, focus, and happiness.

Estimated reading time: 5 inspiring, life-enhancing moments


By Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, PCC, Contributing Writer

Are you finding it hard to stay balanced as you head toward the dissertation finish line these days? 

As we continue to shelter-in-place, navigate social issues, and manage our lives, keeping ourselves on an even keel day after day can feel like an uphill struggle. Happiness, focus, and resilience elude us. 

In a challenging and distraction-filled world, it is easy to fall into the habit of just striving to check things off the list. The daily busyness can leave you vulnerable to overwhelm, making it hard to notice the truths, needs, and callings within and around you. 


Building in Mindfulness Moments for More Balance

You may begin to lose track of who you really are and what really matters to you. 

Many ABD's benefit from a bit of breathing space as they face the persistent demands of the dissertation marathon. Engaging in practices to build focus and attention can inspire you to free yourself from distraction—improving your sense of balance and capacity to leverage moments of happiness. 

Even brief engagements with mindfulness and meditation practices can overcome distractibility while strengthening attention. Experts Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., and Richard Davidson, Ph.D., have found that as few as eight minutes of mindfulness reduces mind wandering for a short time, with greater lasting benefits accruing from more sustained practice. 

Happiness is not so much about the circumstances in which you find yourself as about how you choose to experience your life and circumstances.


Where and how you focus your attention can contribute to feeling greater balance, focus, and happiness. You can begin strengthening your attention by being more aware of what you are focusing on. You might try folding brief, simple mindful moments into your day using the tips below. 

You are practicing mindfulness, explains Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., whenever you focus on the present moment with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. The simple act of paying attention brings mindfulness to any moment, e.g., while you brush your teeth, pour a cup of coffee, talk with a friend, or read a research article.

Four tactics for greater resilience, focus, and happiness 

Increasing your sense of resilience and happiness does not require big changes. Even brief moments can create more positive emotions. The secret for many folks is taking an experimental approach. 

Start small with these strategies. Then gradually create more space in your life for these applications as you observe how they fit with your lifestyle and goals. 

1. Savor the taste of your food and drink.

At each meal, try to purposefully pause for a moment to savor the many tastes. Engage your five senses. Pay attention to the textures, smells, and sensations you experience as you interact with the food and drink. What do you notice? 

2. Take in the pleasant moments in real time.

To appreciate a positive moment in your real time pause, take a deep breath, notice the pleasant experience and welcome it with a sense of joy and gratitude. 

3. Reflect on pleasant memories.

Once or twice each day, pause briefly to reflect on a pleasant memory, recalling an experience from earlier in the day or another recent time. 

Pause, take a few slow breaths with awareness, and sit quietly. 

Focus your attention on the positive emotions you experienced and allow yourself to re-experience those pleasant feelings right now. When you're ready, take a few additional slow conscious breaths and then resume your daily activities. 

4. Notice experiences that bring you enjoyment and meaning. 

Happiness grows when we are making progress toward our goals and involved in activities that bring us meaning. To capture those moments, experiment with these strategies: 


1. Think of (or better yet write down) three things or activities that you enjoy. 

2. Think of (or write down) three things or activities that are meaningful to you. 

3. Create a bit of time in your life to include one or more of these daily or weekly. 

4. What's your next step? 


For more happiness strategies, check out Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, teacher of the popular Harvard happiness course. 


"Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we'll ever do. "

- Brené Brown 



Ben-Shahar, Tal. Happier : Learn the secrets to daily joy and lasting fulfillment

Goleman Daniel & Davidson, Richard J. Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body 

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment - and your life 

Niemiec, Ryan M. Mindfulness & character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing 

About the Author


Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, PCC, CMC, is a Professional Certified Coach, psychologist, educator, and keynote speaker. She earned her clinical psychology doctorate from Illinois School of Professional Psychology and a human resource development master's from National-Louis University. Ilene helps people live their best lives by bringing mind, body, and spirit into flow with their strengths, callings, and potential. Ilene inspires people to find fresh perspectives and access their full capacities as creative, resourceful, whole persons. A regular contributor to the ABD Survival Guide, she also blogs for Psychology Today, writes the monthly newsletter Flourish, and offers free resources here. Reach her at


Beach rocks: By unknown & licensed under CC BY-SA 
Brain and heart: Elisa Riva / Pixabay 
Coffee with notebook: Engine_akyurt/Pixabay



An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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