Stressed out guy


This stressed out dude will not bring clarity or focus to writing his grant.  Don’t be like him, it does not lead to success.

To take the stress out of writing, develop a good writing habit

Through my work with academics in grant writing, one of the most common concerns I hear is how to find the time to actually sit down and write. The days of an academic scientist (and most people, nowadays) are chock-full of an endless series of fires and tasks that need attention: hundreds of emails, questions from employees, administrative requests and paperwork, reviewing of papers, helping students, committee meetings, recruiting, and on and on.

It’s enough to make some folks want to sit in the Bahamas sipping margaritas for the rest of their natural lives.  Ok, I must admit, sipping margaritas in the Bahamas sounds appealing even without the excuse of being ridiculously overworked.  But anyway…

All of this comes on top of the bigger tasks of writing papers, writing and applying for grants, and actually doing some science! How to find the time for it all?

In many cases, the answer is this: never. I know plenty of people who work 80 hours a week, every weekend, and never take a break, and are still buried in all there is to do. (Yep, I know what that’s like – it used to be me.  But now I’m a reformed workaholic. Yay!)

Despite the brutal hours, the important work, the big work, gets put off and oft seems to never get done. When it does get done, it’s only at the very last moment, in a flurry of mad, frenetic activity to meet a pressing deadline.

I’m here to tell you (again, from experience), that isn’t a habit that is going to increase your likelihood of success (in grants or much of anything else).

Grants are kinda important (and, no, I don’t write grants using terminology like “kinda,” in case you’re worried about it).  Without grants, there is no funding, no employees, no research, and eventually no job. It must get done.

Yet we procrastinate until the last possible moment, until the deadline looms so large that we can’t ignore it anymore, much like a dump truck bearing down on us in the middle of a crosswalk.  Hurry! Get out of the way!  Write. Don’t sleep. Write. Don’t sleep.  Don’t talk to anyone.  Write. Stuff food down throat quickly. Write more!

Yep, and sometimes I’ve seen an entire grant completed in the week before the deadline (usually not good or successful grants, mind you….)

Besides being an ineffective way to write a grant, this is also incredibly stressful for everyone involved, and often results in poor writing and an unsuccessful proposal.

By contrast, the most successful proposals are usually the ones where the investigators have clarity, focus, and make regular and consistent progress towards the end goal. This goes for papers too.


The pre-requisite to focus

One of the major challenges you may find yourself facing, when presented with a complex task like writing, is simply being present, i.e. being HERE and NOW. No mentally hellish trips to the study section/review meeting. No rehashing of the argument with the collaborator yesterday.  None of that.  Just you and your word processor. Yep, it’s hard!

Presence is a pre-requisite to being an effective writer. You cannot be focussed on a complex task if you are thinking about 100 other things like how am I going to work those budget cuts into my project, Julie’s paper has been on my desk waiting for review for a week, I need to call back my colleague to discuss a potential collaboration, and by the way do we have any food in the house for dinner?

Those thoughts rob the mind of clarity, energy and focus because they put the mind somewhere else in the future or the past. I’ll say it again because it’s so gosh darn important: the mind must be present to the task at hand to be effective at writing.

Being present and focused, however, is not something we generally have been taught much about. Instead, we are usually taught the opposite – how to multi-task, how to plan, and how to analyze past events.

That means if you’re trying to implement this idea of being “focused”, you’re going to have challenges.  Your “focus muscle” is probably going to be pretty weak, much like a flabby bicep that needs a workout at the gym.

You might be surprised at how hard it is to maintain focus on one thing for an extended period of time. Or maybe you’re not surprised. I used to only be able to maintain focus for 5 minutes at a time, unless I had one of those dump-truck sized deadlines looming, that forced me into focus.

But just like the muscles in your arms or legs, regular use and practice will make them stronger. If you make a regular time to focus on writing, your muscle will get stronger until you can be far more efficient with your time (hey, how could I run a $1M/year lab this year, along with blogging, book writing, managing a business, and teaching grant writing workshops – and still have time for sleep and occasional vacations?)

I recently listened to an interview with best-selling fiction author Stuart Woods. He has written over 30 books, and regularly publishes 2 books a year. As a full-time author, you might think he spends all day writing, but you’d be wrong. Instead, he spends 2 hours a day. Every day, at the same time of the day, he sits down to do his work. He spends one hour reviewing and editing his work from the day before, and one hour writing a new chapter. The rest of the day he spends time thinking about plot lines and characters while he is doing other things, but he only spends 2 hours of concentrated work a day. He has developed a practice of being present and focused on his work every day. Because he does this every day, his focus muscle has gotten very strong and now he is very efficient during this time. Efficient enough to complete 2 novels a year, most of which go on to be best sellers!

I offer this example to illustrate 2 things.

  1. You don’t have to spend a lot of time each day in order to make good progress. And
  2. You do have to spend SOME time each day in order to make good progress.

Set aside a clear and designated “writing time” each day and spend this time working on your grants or papers and you’ll make more progress than you would have thought possible. Best of all, when that grant deadline comes along, you won’t have to pull all-nighters to get it done and you’ll have a clear and well thought-out proposal.

In the next post, I’ll talk about how to find the time and develop your habit of a Writing Hour each day.



    1 Response to "The Grant Writing Habit (or how to take the stress out of grant writing): part 1"

    • Tyrone Ceaser

      Hi Morgan,

      I wanted to know if you remembered the origin of the Interview with Stewart Woods?

      I just found your blog. Love it!
      As a post-doc, I am still trying to figure out the next step. I dislike the current NIH process I don’t want to end up in the never-ending cycle I’ve seen with so many of my mentors/advisers – but I love science and research.
      Nevertheless, I am glad that an experienced scientist such as yourself has started a podcast related to science and the research process. Thanks!

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