In the end, I highly recommend the book, and the following
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!