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Devoted to providing practical strategies for completing your Doctoral Dissertation.™

INSIDE THIS ISSUE - September 17, 2009

1. A Note from the Editor
This issue includes a book review (RAPT by Winifred Gallagher) that I hope you will find interesting and even helpful. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and could appreciate the content on several levels.

2. Inspirational Quotes

September 17, 2009

A Note from the Editor

Tracy Steen, Ph.D.

Choosing the Focused Life

"Your life--who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love-is the sum of what you focus on." That sweeping statement forms the thesis of Winifred Gallagher's new best-seller, RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life.

Attention, please! Just pay attention. It's sometimes easier said than done. RAPT explores the neuroscience and psychology behind attention, but ultimately it all comes down to us at the personal, volitional level: We can choose where to place our attention; however, it doesn't always end up where we intended.

We all have goals, professional and personal, on which we want to focus, but too often we may find ourselves distracted by inconsequential bits of stimuli. After all, in our fast-moving, media-saturated society, we are surrounded by things that grab our interest.

Grab it? Is there some truth in that colloquialism? At times our attention does seem practically snatched away from our intended focus, even when those extraneous stimuli are actually uninteresting and unworthy of even a glance.

For example, have you ever sat through five minutes of mind-numbing television commercials, or found yourself following a series of computer links that led nowhere you really wanted to go? The problem upon which Gallagher extrapolates is that when we are distracted, we are switching our focus to something we didn't intend to choose.

Most of us would be happy to free our focus from much of what the media places before us, but our celebrity culture doesn't make it easy to filter out the fluff. Bret Stephens noted in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal, "Modern culture has severed many of the remaining links between merit and celebrity. We make a fetish of uninteresting, detestable, loud or unaccomplished people." Our minds can become cluttered with things we don't even want to know.

Fortunately we can do something about it. We can't change the culture or eliminate any of the irrelevant distractions that compete for our cognitive air time, but we can avoid mental detours by improving our focus. Beyond all the neurological research into the fascinating functioning of the brain, there is the even more fascinating feature, you. You get to choose where to focus your mind. The catch is--you must be mindful to do it.

I hardly need mention one of the primary impediments to your focus, for we have written about it many times in this newsletter and you are more than familiar with "technology overload." It has become an almost fashionable topic in books and periodicals, yet awareness hasn't removed the personal challenges that accompany our use of technology.

Computer and internet, email and cell phone, BlackBerry and ipod, and always something more--such as Twitter tweets? (I haven't yet succumbed to that one.) We need or want these technological advances, and they can be immensely helpful as well as entertaining; but they can also steal our time and attention if we are not attentive, i.e., mindful.

Consider placing some personal boundaries on your use of technology so that you don't become vulnerable to technology takeover. Gallagher highlights the potential problem with a personal observation: "Aware of our limited focusing capacity, I take pains to ensure that electronic media and machines aren't in charge of mine."

Especially relevant to the ABD is the research Gallagher presents on the connection between focus and motivation. The selective nature of attention will work to your advantage, linking your specific goal with your personal resources.

Further, Dr. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania believes that intensely motivated individuals possess a quality she refers to as "grit," which involves perseverance but also encompasses attention. Individuals with grit may be more likely to reach their goals because they maintain focus and stay motivated. Let grit be your secret ingredient! (If you are curious about measuring your own grit, you can check out Dr. Duckworth's grit scale online.)

Knowing how motivated most ABDs are, I just have to ask: You would not try to stay focused on more than one thing at a time, would you? Well, of course you would!

We all try to multitask once in a while, but research presented in RAPT reveals we are not as productive as we think we are when multitasking. Rather, we are performing inefficiently (with more error-prone results) because often both tasks are drawing on the same information processing areas of the brain. Although we think we are performing both tasks simultaneously, we are really switching back and forth between the two.

Someone very unlikely to be caught multitasking is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you have been reading this newsletter for a while, you will be familiar with his work and the concept of flow. It is characterized by total absorption in the task at hand--obviously a great impetus to the writing you need to accomplish--but Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes that we can't simply flip a mental switch to get into flow. It requires--you guessed it--attention.

Attention, please! Just pay attention. We began our review of RAPT with these commonplace and fundamentally lightweight expressions, but Gallagher does not treat attention lightly. Pay attention, she says, for your life depends on it. Literally. Where you place your attention--where you choose to focus--will determine the quality of your life, so choose with care.

You have already made one important choice in deciding to work toward your doctorate. Congratulations on completing all the foundational work, now behind you, which enabled you to reach ABD status! I think it's safe to assume that you would like to arrive at your ultimate goal as expeditiously as possible. Attention to the task and sustained focus are your best tickets. But there is more….

There is more because there is more to life. Of course you want to maximize all of it, and once again it comes down to your choice of focus and your mindful intent to keep that focus where you want it. Good things and bad things, annoying things and spectacularly beautiful things--it all happens in life. It's up to us to keep our focus on the good stuff and refuse to dwell on what we know is going to irritate.

If this sounds simple, well…it is simple, but that doesn't make it simplistic. And it doesn't make it easy either. You have to be persistent in training yourself to be mindful. Gallagher learned to shift her attention away from a life-threatening disease, and that formed the impetus for her book. Whether in difficult or mundane situations, we can choose our focus and thus affect the levels of stress or peace, discontent or happiness in our lives.

One of the researchers Gallagher introduces in RAPT is Dr. Fred Bryant who studied a form of rapt attention called "savoring," a mindful attention to positive feelings. Learning to savor enables us to enjoy over and over the positive feelings that come from our good experiences. And needless to say, we should combine savoring with letting go of the bad stuff. Our lives are composed not only of what we focus on, but of what we don't.

Knowing that your focus will define your life, make choices with care and then focus on the good around you and ahead of you (leaving the bad stuff from the past right there--in the past). If you are mindful you can do it, and it will further peace and happiness along the route to the doctorate. Yes, there will still be problems and annoyances along the way, but they needn't preoccupy your attention. This is your life you are living! Where will you place your focus?

Tracy Steen, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in their work. You can contact Dr. Steen with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at You can also visit her website at

Inspirational Quotes

Winifred Gallagher
We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention.

Jose Ortega y Gasset
Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.

Isaac Newton
If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been due more to patient attention than to any other talent.

Martina Navratilova
I just try to concentrate on concentrating.

Hannah Whitall Smith
Keep your mind on the things you want and off the things you don't want.

Winifred Gallagher
The targets of your attention are the building blocks of your life.

Tracy Steen, Ph.D. , is a clinical psychologist and dissertation coach in Philadelphia, PA. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Steen draws on her research background in positive psychology in her coaching work with writers, helping them to remove internal obstacles so they can find more engagement and flow in their work. You can contact Dr. Steen with questions about this newsletter or about coaching in general at You can also visit her website at

Dr. NANCY WHICHARD, Contributor, ABDSG; Director, MentorCoach Academic and Writing Coaching Programs
Nancy Whichard, Ph.D., PCC, is a dissertation and career coach. She has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from 40 major American universities and from many Western European and Canadian universities, as well. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland and for two decades was on the English and Literature faculties at George Washington University and American University. A recovering academic, Nancy knows the importance of politics and diplomacy in negotiating the dissertation experience. Nancy has added a Virtual Dissertation Boot Camp to her offerings. For more information on the Virtual Dissertation Boot Camp and on coaching, email Nancy at Sign up for her Smart Tips for Writers e-newsletter at and read her blog at

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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 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 helping professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You might wish to subscribe to the free eMentorCoach News. Finally you may also 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. They all love coaching from the beach!


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