The Zen of Dissertating: Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly | Issue 286

Summary: Learn to calm your anxious mind with three simple steps so you can finish your dissertation with calm focus.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes if you smile, breathe, and go slowly as you read.

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By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor

"Smile, breathe, and go slowly." Thich Nhat Han

When Thich Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk, died in January, the world lost a beacon of peace and joy—qualities in short supply these days. Yet his wisdom lives on to guide us through life's challenges. Surprisingly, his teachings can even help struggling dissertation writers.

The above quotation instantly became one of my favorite mantras. In just five words, this Zen master summed up how to flourish in any circumstance. Furthermore, it resonates beautifully with positive psychology perspectives and my own personal and professional experience.

How could this mantra help you finish your dissertation? Here is a step by step illustration of how each of those three actions can contribute to your success and well-being as you finish your doctorate.

 

1. SMILE 
 

Smiling is usually seen as a reflection of positive feelings. But facial expressions, including smiling, also contribute to your feelings and your energy level. And who wouldn't like more energy? 
 

You might induce yourself to smile by doing things you enjoy—e.g., do something you love, call a friend, dance, sing, etc. Perhaps savor the view from your window or find something to be grateful for. 

Or, it turns out, you could just "fake-it-til-you-make-it." 
 

In two studies, participants "forced" to smile by holding a pen or chopstick between their teeth did show more positive emotions than comparison groups. According to researcher Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, "When your muscles say you're happy, you're more likely to see the world around you in a positive way." 
 

Smiling has more bonuses in social interaction by facilitating trust and cohesion. They also are contagious and can lead to widening ripples of positive energy, says positive psychologist Shawn Achor
 

So whether you are simply trying to energize yourself to write that next paragraph or aiming to spark a useful conversation with your advisor, remember to smile. Even if you have to hold a pencil between your teeth. 


 

2. BREATHE
 

You've been breathing since you were born. But did you know that how you breathe can affect how you feel—and vice versa? 
 

Unless you practice yoga or meditation, chances are you are breathing incorrectly. With our cultural preoccupation with a flat stomach, too many of us end up with the bad habit of chest breathing. Or we find ourselves mouth breathing. 
 

Our bodies benefit most from diaphragmatic breathing, also known as "deep breathing" or " belly breathing." It has repeatedly been shown to be one of the best ways to lower stress. When you breathe slowly and deeply, your brain gets the message to calm down—and it in turn messages the rest of your body to follow suit. Stress symptoms such as an increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, decrease. 
 

Furthermore, pausing to breathe gives you a chance to center yourself mentally and consider your next best move rather than reacting impulsively. When things get especially tough, instead of revving yourself up into a panic over your dissertation and shallow rapid breathing, take a few minutes to practice deep breathing. You'll feel better and think more clearly. 
 

Need breathing lessons? As you inhale and exhale, your belly—not your chest—should be rising and falling. Also, your exhale should be longer than your inhale. While you may exhale through your mouth to relax, you should always inhale through your nose. Find more tips from the University of Michigan here. 


 

3. GO SLOWLY
 

As a child, you may have read Aesop's fable of the hare and the tortoise, designed to teach young minds that "slow and steady wins the race." 
 

That timeless lesson gets reinforced by today's productivity gurus who love to cite Roald Amundson, the Norwegian explorer whose team was the first to reach the South Pole. Amundson gained fame for insisting that his team march no more than 20 miles a day, even when conditions permitted more. Everyone must sleep and rest, he explained. Meanwhile the rival team which exploited ideal weather with marathon marches perished en route.

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You will reach your own destination sooner and with less angst by setting reasonable daily goals. Developing a writing habit works better than relying on marathon sessions that leave you exhausted for days. 

Best practices include carving out regular blocks of time in your planner for doctoral work, clearly marking your start and finish times. Setting a "do" date and time leads to greater sustainable progress than a "due" date—which too often provokes panic. Going slowly also gives your mind time to incubate and hone your ideas in between writing sessions.

You will reach your own destination sooner and with less angst by setting reasonable daily goals. Developing a writing habit works better than relying on marathon sessions that leave you exhausted for days. 

Best practices include carving out regular blocks of time in your planner for doctoral work, clearly marking your start and finish times. Setting a "do" date and time leads to greater sustainable progress than a "due" date—which too often provokes panic. Going slowly also gives your mind time to incubate and hone your ideas in between writing sessions.

Overall, becoming intentional about how you spend your time serves as a reliable recipe for calm and focus. Be prepared to discover you need to say "no" to more things so you can work at a comfortable pace. 

As breakthroughs in neuroscience show, your repeated daily actions create your long-term habits. Do you want your life to become an endless cycle of loaf-and-cram? Or would you prefer a steady, deliberate process that allows you peace of mind with time enough for your top priorities? Be the tortoise. 

  

CHOOSE THE PATH OF JOY, CALM, AND FOCUS

Despite the swirling challenges and crises, you still have things you can control. You can choose to enhance your positivity, inner calm, and focus to make substantive progress on your dissertation and other goals regularly: Just smile, breathe, and go slowly. 

Recommended resources from Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now

Plum Village App Free app with guided meditations by Thich & followers 

FIND A COACHPositive psychology coaches excel at partnering with clients to boost positivity, lower stress, and achieve personal and professional goals. Cultivate your best self and do your best work—request a complimentary consultation with one of our experienced coaches here

Image credit: Photo of Thich Nhat Hanh by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

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GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG. 
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 gayle@essencecoaching.com for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources essencecoaching.com

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 (www.MentorCoach.com), 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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