Friday 10 July 2020

Why making marginal gains at university can do wonders for your mental health

Adam explains the mental health benefits of setting small and achievable goals throughout the year to keep on track at university.
- Adam

Finally, we have just about reached the end of this academic year. Let’s take a breath and recharge our batteries ahead of next year.

Some people say university is for people who are reluctant to work. What a load of rubbish! Assignments piling up on top of you is one of the worst feelings in the world – and people have to work incredibly hard to get their degree. Whilst it can be easy to forget amongst the good times and happy memories, university is not easy – that is for certain – but there are things you can do to make your life a lot easier on campus.

Marginal gains – one marginal gain does not always make a lot of difference – but several can have an enormous effect on your wellbeing.

Back at the end of November, I suffered terribly with anxiety problems. Work in all three of my units was piling up – both naturally and because I had left a couple of assignments quite late – something I never used to do.

The trouble is, I had three deadlines all in December and had none in previous months. My first tip? Set yourself soft deadlines to meet throughout your semesters, even if fellow students on your course do not have the same urgency as you do. In one of my units, I had to create an audio documentary and in order to be successful, I had to treat this assignment as a process as opposed to one deadline down the road.

There were interviews to sort out, music, sound effects and my own narration – all of which needed to be in the piece. Luckily, I sorted myself out after Christmas and implemented that soft deadline strategy to ensure I completed the assignment well before the due date.

The due date was 23rd March amid the coronavirus crisis – so this strategy really did serve me well even though I would be unaware of its brilliant impact back in the Christmas holidays. As I sat in my lecture on 17th March (my birthday!), which turned out to be the last day I was on campus, I was fully relaxed and focused on the assignment that was due in early April as well as my written exam in another unit at the end of March.

That was when I really noticed that the decision to set soft deadlines paid off.

My second tip and marginal gain would be to stay that extra hour on campus when you can – whether that is using equipment in your lecture room or studying in the library. An hour may not seem like a long time – but spending one hour in the library a few times per week could make all the difference between one grade and another whilst improving your mental wellbeing.

Spending three or four extra hours on campus each day I was in (as well as coming in on days where I was not even supposed to in December) was very draining and if I’m honest, not fun at all when the pressure was at its highest.

As someone who commutes to and from university with a journey of well over an hour each way, I was not enjoying my passion anymore approaching the Christmas deadlines. It would have been slightly better if I could do most of my work at home – but I had to go on campus to do it.

When I came back in January, that all changed and I implemented my plan to spend one hour extra on campus every day. Even though I still came in sometimes on days when I was meant to be at home, the pressure was off and therefore it made the journey to and from university a pleasure, knowing I was making small gains that would pay dividends at the end stages of the academic year.

From there, I gave myself incentives for spending extra time at university, whilst improving my mental health and preventing a barrage of anxiety from overcoming me when it came to the time where I had multiple deadlines.

My final tip would be to keep in close communication with staff at the university – both in terms of counsellors and your academic tutors. They are there to help you!

Regrettably, I did not seek counselling at the time when I was really struggling. Although my lecturer was very helpful and reassuring, I should have also taken the time to sort out my own mental health and made use of the counselling services my university currently offers. If I could turn the clocks back and change anything, that would have been it.

There is no shame whatsoever in speaking out about how you are feeling – and I really did let myself down by not doing it as an advocate of raising awareness about it. The important thing is that I learnt from this experience and can take it on board for the future.

The second part of my point is making sure you are in constant communication with your lecturer(s) about your current progress. By keeping in contact with them, you can clarify exactly what they want in your assignments and get the help you need, ensuring you can maximise your grades.

Getting the grades you want can be so motivating – especially when it counts towards your degree and can give you a great platform to build on.

Although these three tips seem like small gains, they can all be a real force combined and can greatly improve your university experience as well as your mental health. Keeping your mind healthy is vital when studying for a degree – and these three steps have helped me to completely change my experience and my grades as well.

At the present day, my passion for journalism is greater than ever and I hope this can help you strive to become your ideal self.

Work hard, play hard, keep speaking out and hold your head up high! 

You can find more resources on supporting yourself on the Student Minds website.

I'm Adam, a Journalism and Media Production student at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. Over the past few years, I have written hundreds of articles at both a local and national level - including the Daily Express. As well as writing about mental health, I cover current affairs, sport, politics and education in my quest to serve the general public.

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