Make Marginal Gains in Your University Experience

August 25, 2015

Making the slightest changes in lifestyle can improve academic results, wellbeing, and fun!
University can be the first significant time fully living away from home, without the parental input and usual support structures to guide you to success. This is an amazingly exciting change, but can also be a little daunting.
It is a time of steep learning curves, self-discovery, academic learning, physical exercise, intense socialising and everything else. Whether you find university life a breeze, or an occasional struggle, there are some very simple things to remember that make life easy, and help you get even more out of it.
The theory of making ‘marginal gains’ was adopted by Dave Brailsford, coach of the British cycling team, in an attempt to improve their dismal record. At the time they had never won the Tour de France. Brailsford believes that improving your habits even by 1% across a number of areas from diet to sleep to hygiene, brings disproportionately enormous improvements to overall performance. Indeed, by making a series of very small changes to his team’s training and lifestyle, Brailsford led them to a series of awesome wins in international competitions.
The principle of ‘marginal gains’ is connected to the idea that we form habits very easily through repetitive action, and then the sum of these small, repetitive actions impacts seriously on long-term results. This means that bad performance is not usually because of something that happened overnight, but more likely because we have formed bad habits, affecting us more than we realise. The relevance of this to university students is probably not immediately obvious. However, just as it led to more gold medals for the cycling team, this approach over time can lead to huge improvements for students in studying, socialising, and state of mind.
Without making life any less exciting, it is possible to make yourself as strong, healthy and happy as possible, so you can get the most out of what you are doing. If you focus on improving small habits, as well as good outcomes, you will get there!

Start small

When trying to make yourself do a tiny bit better each week, it helps to start by making sure you implement all the small lifestyle-related things that may seem individually unimportant. Brailsford even concentrated on his team washing their hands properly and sleeping with certain pillows. Think of the value he would see for university students for example, taking at least two or three early nights a week; having a healthy breakfast; drinking two litres of water and eating the recommended five portions of vegetables a day; having a swim, run, yoga or sports session three times a week; or even just getting enough fresh air. All of these are easy to implement in the short-term, and can make a huge difference to feeling good in the long-term.

Studying: about time

In terms of academic studying, the theory of marginal gains is equally relevant. In cycling, the overall aim was to win the Tour de France, or an Olympic medal, which probably at times seemed insurmountable, particularly setting out at the beginning of training. At university, the goal to achieve the best academic results may be a few years away. In both cases, it might be tempting to put things off ‘til next year’ as the goal seems far enough in the future. Therefore, it is easier to focus on the processes you can improve on each week, a little bit at a time. Making improvements and goals that are more near-term can help avoid that niggling feeling at the very end, that you could have made life (and exams) easier, by working a little harder across the years.
Start with the simple things that can make a huge difference to running your studying effectively. Many of the things you need to do each week will be the same as the previous week, so draw up a timetable for the term and fill it in with the concrete work, social and other things you know you will need to do, which gives automatic structure to your days and weeks. Put in everything you can – including any club nights, sports activities, alongside all the private study time, lectures, tutorials, and essay deadlines. If you try and stick to the timetable, a lot of the effort of trying to organise yourself and pulling emergency all-nighters will be removed.
If you have a hobby, keep it up and set yourself goals to improve a little bit each week. You may think you don’t have time, but just one hour a week focused on your favourite music, dance, yoga, or sport will bring great results over time. Try and give yourself some time to discover your new city – there are likely to be museums, art galleries, markets, cinemas and parks to go and hang out in.

A lecture on lectures

It is the most tempting thing in the world not to go to lectures, but think about it this way: missing a one hour lecture or class each week for the whole term equates to around 10 hours a term, 30 hours an academic year, and around 90 hours in your whole degree. So although it might seem like it won’t make a difference, overall it adds up to around 4 full days and nights of teaching time, that you’ll just have to make up on your own. The same is true if you even manage an extra 30 minutes of daily vocab learning, equation revision, or set text reading – over your degree it will total hundreds of hours of extra practice.

Make use of ‘free’ resources

Another fairly simple thing to do is to make sure you know how all the university’s IT and library systems work – there will probably be sessions at the start of term or ask the librarian to go through things with you. This can help avoid disaster when you need an urgent book or internet resource for a deadline, and haven’t got a library card. The university might also be offering activities like one-on-one help with tutoring, classes and clubs.

Finances: every little helps

You have probably come out of school knowing the ins and outs of photosynthesis, Pythagoras and algebra, but may not feel too clued up about personal finances. Especially in the first term, university is full of exciting things to spend your money on. It is unlikely to be a time when you are making money, rather trying to put in place a few steps so that you don’t spend too much. A few things can help avoid hefty money stress!
Whether it’s in the holidays or during term time, being able to bring in some money can give you a sense that you are in control over your finances. Some people prefer a regular shift in a restaurant or bar, whereas others like more ad hoc arrangements, such as tutoring or brand agency promotion work. Even if your university discourages students from having a job during term time, anything you can earn in the holidays will be a useful contribution.
Most recent graduates advise current students to think twice about getting a student credit card or overdraft even if they are interest free – they are notoriously easy to spend, and hard to pay back once you have got to the bottom. When you leave university, many of them cease to be interest free, so you will start paying interest until you can repay the debt. This can add significantly to stress levels when you are trying to think about work or having fun. Similarly, store cards are not always the best idea as it is difficult to keep track of your spending on them.
Most of all, take advantage of all the ways you can save money. Have an up to date student rail card, using loyalty cards in supermarkets, seek out restaurants with offers and so on. Every little helps!

Support structures

Just like Brailsford’s cyclists, make sure you have support structures around you. At home, these will have probably been organised for you by parents, teachers and others, but at university you need to set them up yourself.
Sign up with your local GP – it’s not a great idea to wait until you get ill and have to struggle to find one, as they will need to transfer your notes from your previous doctor. Make sure you know where the university nurse or pastoral care centre is too.
University gyms and swimming pools often offer cheap memberships to their students. It is worth taking them up on this, even if it eats into your budget for other things, to try and give your health even a 1% boost each week!
In the local town or city, do you know where things are that will help you be organised, such as finding your local bank branch, post office, stationery shop, pharmacy?

Party time: be smart

At university there are always people to go out with so if you want to you can find people to go out with every night of the week. The feeling that everyone is going out can make you feel like you have to for fear of missing out. Actually it is more likely that it is just not as noticeable when someone takes themselves off for an evening in with a film and an early night. The same is true during the day – people are all going to be having study breaks at different times, so it is theoretically possible to spend all day with different people, feeling like no one is working. So keep in mind that it is down to you when you study and when you go out.

Enjoy it!

One of the best parts of university is learning how to look after yourself and make the best of things, which inevitably involves making a few mistakes along the way. So don’t worry too much, try and do a little better each day, and have the best time!

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