Javier Guerra Vence is in his third year of studying MEng Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College London. He is an alumna of Nobel International School Algarve and writes a regular blog about university life.

Systems vs Gains: The importance of prioritising the Long Term and setting habits rather than maximising short term benefits

During your university life, you will have many exams, coursework deadlines and other external things such as sports competitions, recruitment interviews, seminars, talks etc. There is really “too much to do” and, even if these activities help you become successful in the short term, they may cause you to quit doing some habits which will be more beneficial to you in the long term. By the end of this post, I hope that you recognise the importance of prioritising the long-term, having good habits and carrying them out in a sustainable manner.

A habit is something you are used to doing a fixed number of times in a fixed time frame and which you do without thinking. It includes things like the time we wake up, the amount of exercise we do and the amount of time and productivity we have when we study.  It is our past habits who define who we are, and it is how we combine habits and our capacity to improve in all aspects of our habits our habits that define what we will achieve in the future. To give an example, someone who eats fast food all the time and does not exercise is likely to be out of shape, whereas someone who eats healthy and exercises regularly is likely to be fit.  Another example is between two people who regularly exercise and diet, the one who can consistently improve their training plan and diet are likely to end up being fitter than the person who keeps doing the same. The same principle applies in university; those who have the most balanced and organised study timetables coupled with a propagate amount of external activities are more likely to succeed in their careers. To succeed, we have to make sure that we develop the correct habits and have the drive to maintain them and improve them over time.

Habit building is a long and tedious process which requires a lot of drive in the initial phases of building it but has the benefit that once you have managed to make something a habit, it will be much easier to do. For example, when you start a study plan, the first days tend to be complicated, but you get used to it if you maintain it in the long term. Also, habit setting needs to be a gradual process. You need to start somewhere and have the consistency and motivation to improve progressively. If you barely study, you cannot set yourself a ten-hour daily target. You have to start with six hours or so and progress from there until you “master the art”.

To build habits I recommend:

Firstly clearly identifying the reasons you want to build that habit in the first place. This will ensure that you are fully aware of the impact the habit will have in your life and will help you gain motivation towards pursuing it.

Secondly, you should carry out a time-phased plan with short term and long-term objectives and figure out a way to measure your progress.  This will ensure that you track your progress and that you see a change in a given timeframe.

Thirdly, being consistent with habit setting is very important towards reaping the long term benefits of your particular habit. Without the right motivation and “capacity to suffer”, you are likely to give up days after starting a habit.  Too much ambition is also a source for problems as it causes you to “bite off more than you can chew”. It leads to you thinking that you can do everything when in fact it may cause you to drop some of your habits to accommodate for the extra tasks.

The consistency problems you will encounter depend upon your personality.  The lack of motivation problem happens more often to type-B personality whereas people with type-A personality are more prone to the ambition problem. It is therefore vital to know yourself and take a preventive action to counteract the hurdles towards successful habit setting that are part of your personality.

I suffer from having a very strong type A personality (in most respects) and therefore I tend to have problems associated with ambition.  Two things that help me deal with such problems is leaving a small slack in my timetable (which eventually gets filled up as problems arise) and to recognise that sometimes I will have to work in “overcapacity”, and for this to be sustainable it can only happen for a very limited period. When that happens I try to establish priorities in terms of urgency and importance and only end up taking time away from my habits as a last resort.

Whenever I have ended up taking time away from my habits, it has not been positive. For example, in the second year, I decided to carry out a consulting project as a project manager while juggling with my degree and the futsal team. This put me in such a time strain at a point that I ended up exhausted. This caused me to drop productivity leading to more exhaustion and dropping the gym. Such things adversely impacted my academic performance as well as my wellbeing, and I have learned a lot from that experience in that I will never deviate away from my long term interests to achieve a short term “gain”

In conclusion, I will like to remind you that habits are the basis of success and that you should aim to be critical with yourself and have sufficient motivation to change your bad habits to good habits and perseverance to sustain them over time. It is also important not to be highly ambitious such that you threaten the time allocated to your daily habits. Having good habits and improving slowly over time has the same dynamics as compound interest (mathematically speaking, if you start at 1 and you grow by 1 per cent each day by the end of the year you will be at 38), and if you “cut” this streak you will end up loosing all that you have gained.

Finally, I would like to encourage you to use this pandemic to examine your routine, decide upon two bad habits you want to quit and two good habits you want to have instead and take action! I am doing just that!

02 / 02 / 21