Imperfect action in your research career, and especially in your grants, is vital. I used to completely screw this up, trying to take “perfect action” and getting very little of the important stuff done… until the last minute. If you’re someone who finds yourself procrastinating, or having challenges getting started on big projects like grant proposals, read on. 

When I started in my faculty job, I was a procrastinator. I would procrastinate because I was afraid I wouldn’t get my grant proposal to be “perfect” – or even very good – so I’d avoid starting. By avoid, I mean finding 100’s of other things on my “to do” list that always seemed higher priority – even though there was nothing of truly higher priority than funding. Then, finally after long bouts of this perfectionistic procrastination, I would realize; a the deadline is coming up, and I can either skip the deadline or I can get going on this

I would do massive imperfect action in the last week or so, and get the proposal out the door at literally the last minute. I remember submitting several of the proposals just a few minutes before the deadline. That imperfect action at the last minute would break the spell of perfectionism that I was in, but it wasn’t enough. My grant proposals were far too hurried to do the kind of job that is required for a good shot at funding. The proof of that was in the results:  I kept getting rejected. 

Does this pattern sound familiar? The good news is that I figured out how to finally start overcoming this scourge of perfectionism.

The key was this important shift I made: taking early, small steps of imperfect action, rather than taking the big imperfect action at the last minute. 

A way of illustrating this comes from a personal development book written in 1960 by Maxwell Maltz, called Psycho-Cybernetics.  He gives the example of a torpedo; When firing a torpedo, it would be impractical to do every single calculation before firing it. Due to the waves, currents, relative positions of boats, and other factors constantly changing, it would be a massive amount of work to get all the calculations correct in the beginning. Instead, torpedoes fire in the general direction of the target and then make fine adjustments along the way, honing in on their targets. This works much better than trying to calculate it all in one perfect leap at the beginning. 

This concept applies to our lives, careers and grants just as much as it applies to torpedoes. When it comes to writing a grant proposal, it’s necessary to take early imperfect action. The first and most important step to take is just getting started. Secondly, getting some clarity of mind, then writing the first draft, seeking feedback and, finally, iterating. Repeating this process is the secret to getting your grants funded. When I implemented this strategy of getting clarity, writing, feedback and iteration, I went on to get four NIH R01’s funded in a row. In that transition period, I went from doing everything at the last minute to taking early and imperfect action.  

He never hesitated to tell me everything that was wrong with my proposal…

One of the big factors that helped me make this change was my brilliant and hard-ass mentor. He never hesitated to tell me everything that was wrong with my proposal, and I mean everything. I would often hesitate to send him my specific aims page (for an NIH proposal) because I was scared he would tear it to pieces. However, I knew that what I was doing was not working – would get tenure? or have to lay-off staff due to lack of funding? I knew I had to do something different.

I would write an early draft and send it to him months before the deadline. He would take a couple of weeks to review it and then he would get back to me. The first couple iterations were often completely red-lined. He would trash my grants, but because I had started early on, that trashing brought further clarity. I would keep sending him new iterations, and he would keep trashing them. Each time they got a bit better, and this iteration process was how I got my first R01 grant funded, and the subsequent R01’s funded after that. 

Ultimately, I was able to master this process, and I no longer need an external mentor. These days I try to be that kind of mentor to people like you. Getting feedback is a critical part of the process, especially when you’re early in the writing stage. 

Momentum is more important than Quality early on

In an online class I created called Über Productivity, I have a framework that talks about how to create more productivity with less effort and less work. In that framework, there are two essential modes of operation. One is clarity mode, which is just finding a little bit of clarity about what it is you’re doing and how to do it better. After that, you can move into focus mode, where the writing is done.  The majority of creating a grant proposal is writing, so an effective strategy to apply while writing is to shift between clarity and focus. 

However, this strategy only works with a willingness to take imperfect action, because most early efforts are not going to be great, but at least there has been some momentum created. Momentum is an incredibly important thing for all of us in all big projects, especially in grant proposals. If you can create momentum early on, it will help carry you through the grant writing process, step-by-step.

To boil it down down to a final message, it’s necessary to take imperfect action. Imperfect action is about creating a higher quality end result. The first draft doesn’t need to be any good, nor does it need to be a perfect result. In the end, perfection is impossible. Take for example trying to draw a perfect circle. It’s impossible, because even if it appears completely perfect on every side, the atoms and the sub-atomic units are constantly in flux at the sub-atomic level. As humans, we are not good at perfection, but we can do quality, and the best way to quality is to start early with that imperfect action. Take one step, and then iterate. Get more clarity, take another step, iterate. 

This is a good process for anything in life, grant proposals and any other project one would work on. So, if you want to improve your grants, give it a try.

If you find these posts useful and interesting, and want more grant help, I have a free training that goes into more depth on strategies and skills of writing a great proposal. Register at: grantwebinar.com.

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