Getting Side Tracked on Your Way to the CFA

Any kind of independent study program is tough but studying for the CFA exams is even more difficult. You are going to be spending upwards of 300 hours studying for your exam over the next four months. A lot of the material is academic or theoretical and it will be very easy to let your mind wander.
Distractions come in all shapes and sizes and it is hard to say really how much time is wasted needlessly. Consider this, if you are studying for 18 weeks and spend a total of 300 hours then you are studying for about 17 hours a week. That is about six days a week at three hours each day. If you let yourself get distracted and it costs you just 20 minutes each study session, you will have wasted more than 100 minutes a week and nearly 40 hours total over the 18 weeks!

Don’t Sweat the Little Things

There are really two types of distractions when studying for the CFA exams. Short-term annoyances that take your mind off the material or put you on a digression, and the bigger distractions that deal with real decisions and sacrifices.
The smaller distractions are usually fairly easy to counter with a change to your studying or making a rule for yourself. The real distractions, the things that really matter in your life but that need to take a back seat while studying, are harder to confront.
If you are as passionate about finance as I am then you always want to know what is happening in the markets and in the financial press. This is a great hunger to have when you are working and integrating news into your analysis, it’s not so great when you are trying to stay focused on the exams. If you are reading from the curriculum then this problem can be limited by keeping away from the internet or a television. Sometimes you have to be at the computer to work a question bank or other digital materials.
If you find yourself surfing around the internet while you are supposed to be studying, there are some applications that might help. The website HackmyStudy shows several applications or temporary changes to your computer that will block certain sites from your browser or disallow the internet all together.
While CFA-related blogs can be a great resource for your exam prep, especially this one, they can also be a huge distraction while you are studying. There are really two problems here. First, the forums and blogs can be a distraction while you are studying. You might be tempted to check on a post to which you replied or to look for an explanation to a learning outcome statement. The problem is that once you are there, it is easy to look around for hours and never get back to studying.
The second problem with CFA-related blogs is called meta-studying. This is studying about studying and the exams in general. You are meta-studying right now by learning about distractions to studying, a little ironic but anyway. Obviously you need to know about the exams and learning how to efficiently prepare can save you a lot of time later, but there is a limit. I have talked to candidates that were so unsure about the exams that they spent all their time reading blogs and hanging out on the forums and very little time actually studying for the tests. Spend an hour a week checking in on the CFA blogs and forums and then get back to real studying.
Noise can be another minor distraction that ends up costing you a lot of time. It breaks your attention and you end up having to review stuff you previously read just to get back into your flow. The best way to handle noise distractions is to find your own private place to study. It might be a pain to go to the local library instead of studying at home but you will save a ton of time by avoiding multiple distractions. Some libraries may even offer private study rooms where you can close the door and won’t be bothered by the general public.
Food was a big distraction for me while studying for the exams. Not because I have any kind of an eating problem but because it is an easy excuse to take a break. You are doing well studying and suddenly the idea pops into your head, “hey, I think I’ll go get a snack.” Even if your intention is to get the snack and eat while studying, you’ve still distracted yourself and lost at least 15 minutes. Those little breaks add up if they happen every time you study. Take a five minute break every hour to stretch and relax, then get back to work. Every few hours, I would suggest taking a longer 15-minute break to refresh yourself. Other than those two scheduled breaks, make a commitment not to stop for anything.
Spend 15 minutes thinking about the minor distractions that waste your time. Don’t spend too long, it could be a distraction in itself. Then make a solid commitment or do what you need to avoid letting those distractions break your attention while studying.
The “distraction” of friends and family is the big one you have to deal with while studying for the CFA exams. I use the quotation marks because those closest to you are not really a distraction but you do need to learn how to juggle the exams with your social life. I wrote a post last year that offered five tips for finding more time without sacrificing too much of your family life.

  • Lunchtime and other quick breaks – Study for the exams when you have short breaks throughout the day like at lunch or while waiting for something. Flash cards are a great resource because you can carry them around and use them even when you’ve got just a few minutes to spare.
  • Travel time – If you have the opportunity to take public transportation, it can provide a solid hour of study time while you let someone else do the driving.
  • Learn to be a night owl – You may just have to learn to sleep less for the next couple of months. I love sleep but cut back to about five or six hours a night while studying for the exams. That extra two hours a night studying after everyone else has gone to bed may be all you need.

Whether you are dealing with little distractions or big ones, take a quick look at how much time you lose while studying and commit to saving that time. It’s a tough four months ahead of you but the right focus will get you to the exam with all the confidence you need and it will all be worth it.
Good luck candidates. Now get back to studying!
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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