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8 Minutes or Less to Dissertation Mindfulness | Issue 242

Summary: Power up your dissertation with mindfulness and self-compassion. 
A six-minute read to get your dissertation out the door faster—and even change your life.


By Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, CMC, ACC

Some days do you have less focus than you would like?

Do you find yourself dilly-dallying, just trying to wake up enough to work smart?

Then it's time to put mindfulness meditation in the top drawer of your dissertation success toolbox.


What exactly is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with popularizing the concept in the West, offers this definition: "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." In essence, you are off auto-pilot and are fully awake in the present moment.

Its effects can be huge. Mindfulness powers up self-awareness, calm, productivity, and focus, as evidenced in numerous research studies.

These powerful benefits have fostered its broad acceptance across academia and workplaces—from Google to the U.S. Army. Meditation curricula now show up in numerous organizational toolboxes, observe experts Goleman and Davidson.

You can harness this power to finish your degree—and it does not take hours of sitting on a cushion.

These potent effects require much less time than most people imagine—as little as eight minutes, observe Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., and Richard Davidson, Ph.D. in Altered Traits.

Busy-ness Does Not Equal Productivity

The world of a typical ABD is loaded with distractions. Sometimes you get to what's important. . . and sometimes you don't.


How often have you found yourself mindlessly doing whatever comes up, i.e., checking things off your To Do list, keeping busy, yet at day's end accomplishing nothing on your dissertation?

It's easy to fall into this trap. Without creating "breathing space" amid persistent demands of graduate work, you can end up drifting--or overwhelmed precisely when you most need to feel present, balanced, and competent.

Mindfulness offers you the best cure available. And it's free.

"Meditation is the ultimate mobile device you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively." ~ Sharon Salzberg

The Fitness Plan for Your Mind

You know that physical exercise keeps your body strong and fit. Now consider mindfulness meditation as fitness training for your mind. Instead of getting caught in rumination or distraction, you will be able to pay attention to what is happening right now and then make the most effective choices.

As Goleman and Davidson put it, "Mindfulness lets us observe what's happening in the mind itself rather than simply be carried away by it."

Practicing mindfulness regularly will change your brain in ways that lead you to be at your best more often.

Researchers found that subjects who participated in the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (thus practicing mindfulness 30 minutes per day for eight weeks) showed remarkable changes in areas of the brain related to positive emotions and energy, report Goleman and Davidson.

"The thing about meditation is: You become more and more you." ~ David Lynch


Become Your Own Best Friend


Mindfulness is a key to self-compassion. Being able to observe self-critical thoughts instead of being controlled by them is the first step towards become kinder to yourself. As mindfulness experts Mark Williams and Danny Penman explain:

You come to realize that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts ... Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself.

In short, you don't have to believe everything you think.


You can notice yet not accept the slings and arrows hurled by your inner critic. You can become aware of your thoughts instead of avoiding them or exaggerating them.

Failure is part of being human, and it's a common experience on the dissertation journey. Self-compassion skills let you treat yourself with care and kindness in challenging situations that emerge while researching and writing a dissertation.


Fortunately, self-compassion skills can be learned, and mindfulness proves crucial in this endeavor. [Editor's note: Researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D., offers several mindfulness meditations specially targeted at enhancing self-compassion at her site.]


Your Easy Entry into Mindfulness


Mindfulness, as with any skill, develops with practice, and meditation is the proven route. It's easy to experiment with two of the most popular Westernized forms of Buddhist meditation, insight meditation ( vipassana) and lovingkindness meditation (metta).


Follow the simple instructions below and find more information and options in the recommended resources. Want guided meditations? Download one of the smart phone apps which offer them for all levels of practice.

Not enough time in your day? Meditation be practiced for just moments or for much longer. You might start with a few minutes per day and then lengthen your practice for deeper benefits. The proof will be in your growing experience of calm, focus, and happiness, i.e., of mindfulness in daily activities.


"You should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for an hour."

~ Zen adage


Insight Meditation: Follow the Breath


Insight meditation involves continued close attention to sensations. This simple and direct practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness lets us experience directly the ever-changing flow of the mind/body process. Here are the fundamental steps:


Pause to take a slow, deep breath--and notice that you are breathing, perhaps silently saying "breathing in" and "breathing out" as you inhale and exhale. There's no need to change your breathing, just notice it.

Breath awareness can be practiced for one inhale and exhale—or repeated for a longer period. When the mind wanders (which it always does), gently bring it back to the breath. Mindwandering does not signal your lack of aptitude. Instead it serves the perfect opportunity to strengthen your attention by refocusing.


This simple approach can be used to gain focus at important moments, e.g., as you prepare to write, before an interview or phone call, during a meeting, or when feeling upset or worried. You might try it upon waking up in the morning instead of grabbing your phone.


As you train your attention, you will experience greater and more lasting equanimity, wisdom, and compassion.

Open up with Lovingkindness


While insight meditation focuses on attention, lovingkindness meditation invites you to open your heart. Despite the differing foci, they both facilitate mindfulness, compassion, equanimity, and wisdom.


In her various books (see below), renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg introduces many core practices, including lovingkindness. Those who find it challenging to concentrate on the breath often find lovingkindness meditation an easier place to start.


In LKM, you repeat simple phrases offering goodwill and compassion—first to yourself and then to others. These simple but powerful phrases may be repeated silently, sitting or lying down with eyes closed or open: "May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease."


As you feel ready, extend them to specific others or even all human beings everywhere. Notice the sense of calm and contentment grow as you practice this.


Imagine how enhanced mindfulness, self-awareness, and calm could propel you to the dissertation finish line. You don't have to be a yogi to benefit from these practices. Just like learning to ride a bike, mindfulness is a learnable skill and one that you can access in any moment.


The moment is NOW.



Apps for meditation and mindfulness: Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm, and others.


Berns-Zare, Ilene. (a) Mindfulness, Balance, and Confessions of a Life-Work Coach and (b)Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and

Calm--Powerful Tools for the Effective Leader's Toolbox


Goleman, Daniel & Davidson, Richard J. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body


Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn: Kabat-Zinn Leads a Session on Mindfulness at Google and (b) Meditation Is Not What You Think and Why It Is So Important


Salzberg, Sharon. Lovingkindness : The Revolutionary Art of Happiness , (b) Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and (c) Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement and Peace

Williams, Mark. & Penman, Danny. Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World

Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, MS, ACC, CMC is a life and leadership coach, psychologist, and educator. Ilene is committed to empowerment through learning, personal/professional development, and integrative well-being. She sees coaching, training, and writing as offering a lens through which people can gain fresh perspectives, ask important professional and personal questions, and access strengths, skills, and possibilities. Email Ilene at and read more at


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

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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