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Perfectionism Revisited

Earlier I wrote about The Perils of Perfectionism, in which I made the case for just getting it done with regards to proposal writing. Now I’ve found another example of the same idea in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The narrator says: “As they keep telling you in Basic, doing something constructive at once is better than figuring out the best thing to do hours later.” Extend “hours” to “weeks” and the same is true of grant writing, where too much dithering can lead to missing the deadline.

On another note, a commenter said, “[Do you think we should t]hrow caution to the wind??? Really? Just do it? Don’t be methodical???” “The Perils of Perfectionism” isn’t arguing that you should put no effort into proposals any more than Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding argues that it’s impossible to gauge whether your grant writing is effective or impossible to decide what programs organizations should apply for. With “The Perils of Perfectionism,” it’s wrong to apply either/or logic because a continuum exists; you, the applicant or the grant writer for the applicant, needs to keep the ultimate goal in mind: getting funded. If you become obsessed with creating the perfect application, you might never get it done, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise. If you don’t finish the proposal and submit it on time, you can’t get funded, and if you spend too much time in search of the perfect support letter, or the perfect data, or worry too much about comma placement two days before the application is due, you won’t finish your application. The best rule of thumb: make the proposal as good as you can within time and other constraints and then move on. You should try to complete the best proposal you can, which isn’t the same as throwing caution to the wind, but you also need to be cognizant of time.

Being cognizant of time and other limitations might also mean that you’re better off applying for two programs rather trying to perfect one application. This idea, like many of the ones I’m describing in this post, is a special case of the 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto principle), which basically states that 80% of the time on a project can be consumed by the last 20% of the work, and vice-versa. It’s sometimes also called the 90/10 rule; computer programmers deal with it all the time. For grant writers, this means that rather than spending 80% of your time trying to make a proposal 20% better, you might be better of trying to apply to two programs and making both applications 90% good rather than striving toward the unreachable 100%.

Notice that I use “might” repeatedly: that’s because I don’t know what might arise in every instance and general principles don’t apply to every specific situation. But I do know that the only organizations that earn funding are the ones that get proposals submitted, which is something you should keep in mind when you allocate your time and resources. I also know that you need to have some idea of the parameters involved in writing proposals if you’re going to understand the trade-offs faced in preparing and applying for grants. If you’re aware of the perils of perfectionism, you’ll be better equipped to make decisions about how to allocate resources (including time) and how to maximize your organization’s chance of being funded.