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I find it very difficult to make strong research proposals, where I am trying to convince the audience that my proposal is important (possibly more important than the other applicants'). I write "grant applications" in quotes, because that is the most straightforward example: In these, it is typically expected that you not only describe your idea in a way that the reviewer will easily understand and comprehend, but also convince them that the research is important and worth funding (especially with grants where the majority of applications are rejected). This feature is not limited to only grants: I think fellowship applications, PhD applications (whether they require a research proposal explicitly, or implicitly through statements of purpose with concrete research plans embedded in them being more effective), postdoc job applications and perhaps even junior faculty member applications are very similar in that one must propose a research project, and make it sound important besides merely communicating clearly.

Whenever I need to write such a proposal, I inevitably feel stuck. I immediately become anxious that my research is not all that interesting, I'm not really all that great a scientist, and feel that I must work very hard to make my proposal sound like it is more important than it is if I am to have a fighting chance. This is scary, and I end up procrastinating for many days on the writing. I tell myself that I am "waiting to be in the right sort of creative, inventive, intellectual, scientific mental state", but I secretly know this is nonsense. There are 3 very strong antitheses:

  1. All the creative persons across the spectrum of fields (from artists to writers to inventors and engineers to mathematicians and scientists) appear in unanimous agreement that it is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". I have never heard anyone worth mention claim that "waiting for inspiration to come" is an effective strategy.
  2. The inspiration that I supposedly await has an uncanny habit of materializing exactly on the night before the proposal deadline, at 3 AM in the morning, such that if it came just a little later I would not have been able to make it to the deadline.
  3. When I do finish the proposal, I am almost universally satisfied that the result doesn't sound unimportant, and could have been brilliant if only I had started a bit earlier and made more rewrites.

I think the more realistic explanation is that at some point the fear of missing the deadline becomes so great that it overpowers my anxiety. However, I think it would be better if I could do away with the anxiety, so I could start work way before the deadline, and have time to make many revisions and avoid having to pull all-nighters.

How can I get over this anxiety? By way of showing what I have tried:

  • Gaming antithesis #2 above: Setting an early deadline, so that it forces me to get started, then obtaining an extension on the deadline in which time I can make revisions, now that I have gotten over the most difficult initial step. Unfortunately, the moment I obtain the extension, the anxiety comes back and saps my motivation. This happens even if the extension happens as a surprise.
  • "Just start by writing anything, and rewrite later" - this is very hard to force myself to do, because I feel like my ideas are hopelessly irrelevant and there's no point in even trying. Even if I do force myself to jot down a very rough outline, it is just as hard to motivate myself to keep refining it, because I feel that no matter how much I refine it, it will still be irrelevant.
  • Ask friends and colleagues for feedback - very effective for making a mediocre proposal good, but useless for starting out: I get even more anxious because I worry about embarrassing myself to other people.
  • Build up tolerance by repeated attempts - I have gone through the proposal writing process quite a few times, but the experience doesn't appear to have made it any easier. I feel like even if I had been awarded a thousand grants, I would still say to myself, "Man, you may have had a good run in your day, but this time you've lost it - this is the stupidest idea you've ever had".
  • How do I overcome fear of rejection when writing academic papers? - the suggestion to follow the example of good papers is hard to apply, because proposals are often confidential. The remark about "reaching a certain level of maturity" also seems to not apply, because surely a project that is only at the idea stage is anything but mature?
  • What is expected when "novel" and "innovative" ideas are requested as part of a research grant application? - very related, but there are many grant schemes which emphasize impact and importance (often without defining them) over innovation.

Oddly enough, I don't feel insecure about other aspects of science. I don't hesitate to do research because of self-doubt, I'm not shy about telling other people about my research (so long as the only requirement is that they understand it, and it doesn't matter if they don't think it's important), I think I do a decent job of communicating my ideas clearly and I sincerely believe that given my level of competence I have a good chance of solving the problems I am working on. Obviously, I think my research is worth doing - otherwise I wouldn't be doing it.

It is only when convincing someone else that my research is important that I stumble. I tend to imagine a grant reviewer saying to me, "Okay, this is all very nice and good, but applicant X over there wants the same grant so he can cure cancer and end world hunger. Why should we fund you and not him?" Of course, this is like saying "why should we fund NASA when we could be feeding the poor" - these aren't mutually exclusive pursuits, and just because you aim high doesn't mean you'll go high. But still, there are millions of scientists out there, and just statistically some of them are probably much smarter and more knowledgeable than me. Honestly, it seems very likely that many of them work on more important things than me. Probably some of them apply for the same grant. So how can I sit there and write a proposal, pretending that I seriously think I should be the one to get funded instead of all these other people?

Sorry if this sounds like more of a request for moral support than a question. In my defense, I think that the difficulty of "selling your ideas" is a common problem for at least a non-trivial subset of scientists (captured quite well by "impostor syndrome") and discussing strategies to overcome it would be a good addition to the site.

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    Unfortunately, I can't help much answering your question, but it's funny to me how we in academia exhibit anxiety similarly. Mine just happens to be in a different area than yours. – James Oct 17 '14 at 2:45
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    Man, my life would be so much easier if I knew how to answer that. If it helps at all, I envy you that you only have this with grant applications. I need to re-convince myself of the significance of my work for every paper as well as for every grant and job application. – xLeitix Oct 17 '14 at 9:45
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    Are you me????? – JeffE Oct 17 '14 at 11:19
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    @JEffE's comment is actually quite a useful one. One thing that young people who feel real emotional (and maybe even physical) distress in writing (e.g.) grant applications should know is: most senior people do too. I just spent the better part of two months writing an NSF grant application. Aside from being a lot of "extra" work (if I don't get the grant the quotation marks can get removed) it is truly harrowing to have to say "my work is so great" so many times in so many different ways (or rather to show it, which is harder and just as stressful). Hang in there: it's not just you. – Pete L. Clark Oct 17 '14 at 16:10
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My solution is to work with collaborators.

If you're writing a proposal together with others then you can workshop ideas together, pick each others' spirits up when you go down, have somebody who you "owe" progress to as an external motivator, and make writing schedules that you have to keep. You can also aim for much more interesting and ambitious projects when you combine complementary skills and capabilities.

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I suspect any answer will be highly specific to individual psychology.

There have been four things I found useful. The first was to do a good project plan for a grant and to convince myself that everything needed to be done to a high standard. Once I have a list of every piece of nigh-meaningless paperwork that needs doing, panic/inspiration tends to flow several months before the due date. And, in practice, it helps cope with writers block because putting together random patient-related boilerplate and laboratory descriptions lets my mind wander while still progressing towards grant completion. Anxiety (or even consciousness) is nigh-impossible while working on a human subjects section.

The second was to read a few granted proposals in my field. There are an awful lot of funded studies that just don't appear at all promising. And the feeling of 'well, I suck', but less than the people who put together grant XYZ is strangely empowering.

The third was to acquire a book describing recommended formats for grant proposals and approach grant writing in a very formulaic way. Okay, a paragraph describing prior work....blah blah blah. Okay, hypothesis... For me, it reduces anxiety by transforming the writing process from promoting my research to filling in the blanks on a long and frustrating form.

The last was to just kind of divorce myself from the whole project and gamify it a bit. Think of writing the grant as preparing a presentation to convince people that something should be done without worrying about whether or not it is actually worthwhile. And pretend you're doing it for someone else. Things also go faster if I reward myself with bathroom breaks upon section completion. Perhaps this is TMI, but it really works.

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TLDR;

In the end, I highly recommend the book, and the following

  1. Be kinder to yourself in your own head - if someone else said to you "they do important work and you do nothing important" you'd probably be inclined to smack them in the mouth. Yet if you say it to yourself, you probably accept it.
  2. Accept that this is a complex and real problem, and instant success is not reasonable - so don't beat yourself up when you run into the problem again.
  3. Try to shift your view of yourself to be based upon your resilience, creativity, and persistence - which are in your control - rather than factors like "grant approved" that are much less in your control.
  4. Realize that you can do better in the future, but only by making adjustments that address your own personal real issue and not merely distract from it.
  5. Your importance, intelligence, and abilities were established and verified a long time ago, and are not up for debate or re-interpretation. Problems you face now aren't because of any of these traits or behaviors.
  6. Like any good experiment, let results dictate whether or not a method is effective for you, not preconceived notions or rapidly changing feelings.

There is no one easy trick that will solve your procrastination - but that doesn't mean it is an insolvable problem. I personally have found that thinking there is some trick actually made the problem worse, because it trivialized the problem.

"This isn't so hard, I just need to do X", I would tell myself. When actually doing X was hard, or didn't solve the problem, then I felt even worse than before - because if I can't even do X, I must an even bigger mess than I thought! This is a terribly cruel thing to do to ourselves - please try not to punish yourself in this way.

Procrastination is not a simple thing, nor is it a sign of stupidity, laziness, moral decline, unfitness, or any other such thing. If this is a problem for you, then I strongly recommend this book: Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now. I owe much of what I have learned to this excellent tome, and to my own struggles with the practice - it is written by two PhDs who've worked specifically in the area of academic and professional procrastination, and there's a vanishingly small amount of pop-nonsense in the book (I have very little tolerance for such things).


You have already hit upon a very important realization, which is that the core of most procrastination activity is fear - fear we aren't good enough, smart enough, worthy enough. But this isn't the only kind of fear a person can have, such as fear of success, fear of being judged, fear of competition, etc. Everyone has their own unique sets of fears.

It is important to understand that procrastination is a sometimes useful, and sometimes mal-adaptive strategy to get what we want. Sometimes we get what we want in the short-term, but not the-long term, and this sort of procrastination is a perfect example - and we need to understand both why it works and why it doesn't work.

One thing that really drew my attention is this phrase:

...could have been brilliant if only I had started a bit earlier...

This is called "self-handicapping", and ultimately it allows us to protect ourselves from fear. If we wait until the last minute and don't succeed, then we don't need to take that personally- if only we had started sooner, we'd have succeeded! It's not us, it's the delay. On the other hand if we succeed, then we are double great, because we practically phoned that one in and still won - we must really be something! Waiting until the last minute increases the perceived reward AND lowers the perceived risk - no wander it's such a compelling strategy!

But ultimately both reasonings serve to do one thing: protect ourselves from a reality that is frightening. What if we do our absolute best, and still fail?

One way of dealing with this is attacking the fear directly - what if you do your best to write a great grant app, and they still reject you? Go ahead and explain this in a way that is non-threatening - they get a lot of great grant requests, the program directors are morons, they probably just pick grants by throwing darts at a board, budget cutbacks (politicians/administrators/taxpayers are morons)...go ahead and explain the rejection now, in way you believe that doesn't include ripping yourself to shreds.

Or you can accept responsability, but do so in a fair way - you may have failed to communicate the nature of your proposed work in a way they understood, but that doesn't mean you aren't good at your job or smart - you just need to persevere at an inherently difficult task. You can also point out to yourself that you aren't just writing one single grant request (you aren't, right?), and so while the individual chance of each one succeeding might not be great you have a far higher chance of one of your many requests being approved.

In this way you can reduce the fear that this specific grant request is do or die, and so it isn't so bad because it's not scary and you do non-scary things all the time, right? For some people and in some cases, this works nicely, but it's not your only strategy.


Another mutually-helpful approach is hit on in your own realization:

I have never heard anyone worth mention claim that "waiting for inspiration to come" is an effective strategy

This is a great observation, and I've heard this called "the motivation fairy". The belief is that we just need to lie in wait for the motivation fairy, and it will appear and grant us the motivation we need to work!

The problem is that, as you noticed, this isn't how motivation really works. It turns out that motivation is not really something that comes before the work - motivation is produced by working! This seemed crazy to me, but the more I thought about it the more it fit my experience. I never feel the most motivated before I start something, but rather it's while I'm in the middle of doing something and making progress and feeling good about the work I'm actually doing! Motivation fundamentally is not forward-looking thing like "hope", but rather it is like the flames of a camp fire - people gather around it to warm up, but it was created initially by working hard in the cold! First comes the work, then come the flames.

The third and most useful tactic I've personally used is this: realize that how you feel about doing something does not particularly control the quality of output of your work, nor whether or not you should do it.

Much like the previous issue with motivation, I thought I should feel a certain way about my work before I started. This is a version of perfectionism - the feeling that everything should be "just so" before you do something. I mean, I've read that brilliant people eat a balanced breakfast and take an afternoon nap, and I ate beef jerky for breakfast and had to work all afternoon - so surely I should just skip this and try to have a better day tomorrow so I can do this work, right? I mean, I don't even want to do it, and surely the work will be terrible with this attitude.

The truth is that work is more like a game of American Football (or Rugby for everyone else in the world) or a broadway show - it doesn't really matter what the weather is or how you feel that day, the game/show must go on regardless.

With much effort I have begun to realize that I really suck at predicting the output of my own work based upon my feelings, desires, and emotions. Sometimes I produce an A+ paper with a fever and a stomach full of Pepto-Bismal, and sometimes everything is going my way and I churn out 10 pages that had nothing to do with what I was actually supposed to be doing. Sometimes I'm super-excited about a subject and just can't "get it", and sometimes I breeze through material I couldn't care less about.

I was amazed to find that some people hear such an explanation and think, "yeah, that's how life works - how did you think it works?" Well, I thought work was something people got all worked up and excited about, looked forward to, then jumped into and made continual progress on up until a conclusion they were terribly satisfied with.

Apparently people laugh at such a fanciful world-view, but that's how many of us still think work is supposed to go, and we get mad at ourselves and feel doomed or like failures when the reality is all messy and we feel grumpy but we are still supposed to work on something we just don't feel like doing today (or this week, month...).

Decoupling "what I feel like doing" from "what I should do" from "what I am going to do now" is really hard, but over the last decade I think I've gotten better at it. But jeeze, I put in a lot of effort and I often flounder around in my chair and say, "gahhh, I don't wannnnaaaaa!" for a while. Sometimes I get over it and get work done, and then I'm amazed at how quickly I forget about the whole episode and my work output seems to have little relation whatsoever to my feelings at the time.


Before wrapping up I want to hit on one more time-honored way we punish ourselves: false disadvantageous comparisons

"Okay, this is all very nice and good, but applicant X over there wants the same grant so he can cure cancer and end world hunger. Why should we fund you and not him?"

These sorts of comparisons are very common, and notice how incredibly unfair they are? But notice also how they are thrown out there and left unquestioned, as if they are obviously true and we should feel like failures in comparison for our puny efforts.

But that's just it - one of our greatest enemies is unquestioned assumptions, and so we should apply our argumentative skills against these things too.

First, of all, are you in fact competing directly with people who aim to cure cancer and/or end world hunger? If you aren't competing with these people, then that's silly - you're winning doesn't take money away from them, because the grant you want can't possibly take money away from them.

But let's say you are competing with them. Obviously they should win, right? But wait, if a grant request that's competing with you will win, then you have nothing to fear by writing a great request because even an idiot would know they have the better request and they'd get funded anyway. And come to think of it, haven't people been trying to cure cancer and end world hunger for a long time - so why haven't they? Is it because people like me want grants for something else?

It turns out that world hunger is a great example, because without our realizing people did already solve the problem we thought we had. We now have more food in the world than we need, but some people go without - why? Because it turns out that the world is complicated, and things like war, social justice, economic systems, and corruption mean that solving world hunger isn't so clearly solvable. It's going to take a lot of work in more fields than we ever imagined to make more progress, from psychology, sociology, economics, engineering, political science, and probably a lot of more fields than that.

Cancer, too, it turns out is complex and is caused by many things, and we can't cure it because there is a lot about the human body and chemistry we just don't understand. If it was an easy problem, we'd have solved it already. If we spent 100% of our yearly grant money only on cancer research, it's not clear that we could cure any form of it because we might not know enough about basic processes to be able to solve the problem yet.

This is also true of war, social justice, poverty, space exploration/colonization, and any other such major problem. They exist because they are hard problems, and it seems the webs of the world are very twisted indeed. And so we spread out our search for knowledge and advancement over many fields, in the hopes that one day the web will expand far enough to allow us to solve a previously insolvable problem - though we have no idea how long it might take or what field or what person will be responsible for the key insight.

So, with this said, who are you actually competing with - based on successful grant requests - and based on last years winners (when this data is available) surely some will seem amazing to you, and some will seem stupid and unimportant. Grants aren't noble prizes, and some people get money for stuff you couldn't care less about. Some are important, some will turn out to be outright failures, some good things will get funded and some bad ones will too.

And at the end of the day, this might make you feel better or not, but it might not matter because these are often just excuses we tell ourselves to rationalize our aversions to fear and our habits of waiting for the right moment.


The book mentioned previously has about 200-300 pages of very useful and helpful tips and information beyond anything I could possibly summarize here, so please consider making it a part of your daily reading routine if quick-fixes prove ineffective or short-lived (they almost always are). It's a process of developing tools, retraining yourself, and building up psyche-muscles.

Procrastination behaviors, anxiety, and fears all have their appropriate place in life, and can get out of hand and become hurtful to our well-being; they can also be put back into their rightful place, and that requires diligent effort over a significant period of time.

Good luck, and fight the good fight!

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Wow, great ideas here. Here's a small suggestion. It is sometimes easier for me to get a project off my desk if I use it as a way to procrastinate about some other project. Perhaps you could harness that idea and cook up some project that you really should be doing, but which does not appeal to you -- and then you might feel tempted to work on the research proposal as a way of avoiding the other thing.

My main contribution has to do with how OCD is treated. There are two steps:

  1. Name the fear -- preferably something that will help you laugh at it.

  2. Talk back to it.

There is a very nice segment on a This American Life podcast that illustrates #2, done in a novel way, as a DIY project, without a therapist. If you don't want to listen to it, you can read the transcript here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/545/transcript (Scroll down to Act Four. Mailer Demon.)

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Purely personal top, from someone who had to break through a near-total writing block: Write one to throw away. If you're stuck for a first paragraph, scribble a note about what ideas belong there and move on. If you're having trouble with phrasing, just day it however it's easiest and move on. If you can't find the citation you need, leave yourself a (foot)note with a key phrase like "to be determined" or "Fixme!" and move on. Don't worry about making it elegant, just get it down on paper.

After finishing that rough draft, srt it aside for a few days if possible.

Then come back to it, read it through, and decide what needs to be improved. Remember, the base assumption is that the first pass was just to start organizing your thoughts... bit you may find that very little polishing is needed. On the other hand, even if it's a complete train wreck, editing it into acceptable form is often less stressful than trying to write a perfect document the first time

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