Want to Write Successful Grants? Stay Mentally and Physically Strong

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Want to Write Successful Grants? Stay Mentally and Physically Strong

Writing a grant takes its toll. There are multiple reasons why this is so. Some of them are outside of our control while others are within our sphere of influence. Usually, much of the grant writing process takes place after work, that is, after we did: our research, our teaching, the mentoring of our PhD students, the coaching of our postdocs and the myriad other administrative tasks that come with an academic career. It shouldn’t, of course, be like that. The problem is that academics often fail to carve the require time within their working hours to work on the grant and to work on themselves. And hence the stress and the crushing disappointments when the outcome is sub-optimal. Because of all of that, I think, it is more important than ever to be kind to ourselves.

Here are a few things that I try to do to stay -more or less- sane and keep writing grants:

  • Endeavour to stay fairly fit by exercising. I like to run outdoors. The physical exercise is good for the body, e.g. strengthening muscles that otherwise get atrophied by sitting long hours in front of a computer, burning fat, developing cardiovascular and respiratory stamina, etc. Exercise also helps your mind. It not only helps clear it but also teaches your mind to endure, to overcome, to seek challenges, to awaken the senses, etc.
  • Seek to eat relatively healthy. I am not a vegetarian but we have very substantially reduced the intake of meat in our house and I cannot remember the last time I abused alcohol. I could still do better in the eating department though, e.g., I have a weakness for chocolates, but I am working on that too.
  • Try to stay serene while working on a grant. Those of you that know me, will know that “serene” is not what first comes to mind when thinking about my personality. But, but… I do meditate every morning before starting the working day (there are several nice apps out there that could help you get started, just google it; if you are curious I use “Insight Timer” ). Meditating helps me to calm down and take the world in. It helps me to sort my thoughts and very substantially reduce tensions and distractions. I highly recommend this. Importantly, once you get into the habit of meditating, it will become easier to regain focus when your attention is being pulled in many directions or when the deadlines are stacking up.
  • Establish good working habits, chiefly amongst these should be an iron determination to not fall into distractions, to learn to say no to things that do not advance your goals. In essence, strive to get into the habit of practising deep work
  • Build a good working environment, the physical place of refuge where you can get into the flow and work in your grant for sustained periods. But also think about your networking environment (which under lockdown requires concerted effort to maintain) with other grant hackers. This will prove valuable to exchange ideas, find out about funding opportunities, pitfalls they found, etc. Crucially, you will be able to help them and this will make you a better grant writer because by helping others you will become a more attuned and connected person.
  • Use the right tools. If you are working with others on a grant, make sure you use good remote collaboration tools to stay connected, keep the projects organised, etc. There are no silver bullets; different apps work well for different people so explore and find the ones that work well for you and your team. (I will write more about this in a future post). 
  • Keep your family in the loop. If you are about to start working on a grant, talk with your family! it is them that will miss you at launch and dinner; it is them that will be taking extra chores on their shoulders to compensate for the ones you are not doing while you lock yourself in your workplace to craft that grant. Get them on board, check with them if it will be ok that you are planning to do a grant-writing sprint. Sometimes it might just not be the right time for the family. So put the family first, and -in that instance- learn to say no to the grant. There will be other opportunities later.
  • Reward yourself. Grant writing is taxing on you and the family. So learn to reward and celebrate your little bets and your progress. Celebrate with them when you submit the grant, and say thank you to the family and colleagues (e.g. university administrators, finance officers, grant officers, academics, etc) who have enabled you to submit the grant in the first place. If your grant is funded, then celebrate & thank again!

Hillel, a Hebrew biblical scholar, said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? and If I am only for myself, what am ‘I’?”  

So be there for yourself, stay healthy and strong, your grant writing will be the better off for it. But remember, you also depend on others, so help them too.

And remember, Hillel also asked  “And if not now, when?”, and the answer is simple: you should start today.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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