When Life Gets in the Way of Studying

While it certainly may feel like your entire existence is engulfed by this test for six months out of the year, it is naïve to think that the rest of the world cares or it will place itself on pause until you are less busy studying. Now, if you’re an optimist and this last sentence completely burst your bubble and made you even more stressed than before, keep reading—it gets better!

We all have to face the reality that over three six-month periods (best case), things will happen in our lives that derail us from the perfectly laid-out study plan we created. Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Well, the CFA® exam and life can potentially be a pretty nasty jab/hook combo if you’re not properly prepared. Unfortunately for you, I’m not a boxing coach, so you’re on your own in a fight, but the good news is that I’ve run the CFA/life gauntlet, survived to write about it, and am going to share some of my best tips for dealing with this reality you’ve signed yourself up for.

Take Pictures of the Front and Back of your Flashcards on your Phone

I’m going to make the bold assumption that I don’t need to tell you to make flashcards. If I am wrong (you know what they say about assumptions) . . . make flashcards! But since this article is not about how to study, but how to study when life gets in the way, I recommend taking pictures of your flashcards (front and back!) on your phone.

  • This will initially be a pain, but it’ll be worth it when you don’t have to carry around 500 little pieces of paper everywhere you go and can instead pull out your phone and swipe through a few pictures.

  • Think about how often you sit around checking your Instagram or Facebook—this can easily be turned into prime study time.

  • You will likely have to delete all your selfies to make space on your phone, but think about how much happier those selfies will look after you’ve passed!

Make a Formula Sheet You Can Write On

Flashcards are great for distilling all of the topics on the exam, but another large component is knowing the formulas. For those of you who are smarter than me and can memorize them by just reading, feel free to skip this section, but for all the normal people, make formula sheets.

  • This will take some time up front, but it will make your studying so much more efficient over time that it's worth it.

  • On your computer, write all of the formula names down the left side of the page and all of the actual formulas on the right, then make another file and copy/paste them on opposite sides of the page (formulas left, names right).

  • Now print lots of each of these—LOTS of them.

  • When you fold over the right side of these pages, you now have a blank space to write down all the answers and can simply flip it over to check if you're correct.

  • Carry one of these with you everywhere you go and knock out a formula or two whenever you can. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you'll be a formula pro.

Use a Detailed Tracking System

One of the most difficult things about studying for the exam is the sheer volume of material and the length of time it takes to learn it all. How do I even begin? Why do I need six months? How do I know if I’m where I should be? Am I peaking too early? Or am I burning out? Should I be this stressed? Should I be more stressed?

A critical component of managing your mental health on top of the material and time is using a detailed tracking system. Feel free to use whatever works best for you, but I happen to be a giant nerd.  Anytime I can use excel formulas and conditional formatting, I’m in. Believe it or not, seeing that cell highlighted in green when you’ve exceeded your goals for the day/week/month actually does have a material impact on your mood. Action breeds confidence and this is a great way to keep momentum going.

  • Hopefully at this point you’re not surprised when I tell you extra initial work will pay off tenfold in the long run, so take the time to build your own tracking system.

  • This way, when life does happen and you (God forbid) miss two days of studying in a row, you can look at your tracker, see you are three hours ahead of your schedule and take a giant deep breath knowing you’ll be just fine.

At the End of the Day . . .

If you’re determined and truly give it your all, you’ll do great. There is certainly life before the CFA exams, and I’m proof that there’s life after. Managing your time during this process is what is the most challenging. Hopefully I’ve provided you with some helpful tips for doing this—or at the very least, some comfort that you’re not alone in your struggle.

Alex Knapp