Most finance exam candidates are studying and working full time. Luckier ones have employers’ support in the form of study leave and exam fees.
What about the rest?
How does one cope with having a demanding job, a family and studying for the exams at the same time? How to manage study with full time job successfully whilst achieving that delicate sense of balance?
In this article, you’ll learn how to:
- manage time more efficiently,
- increase study retention and
- still have a life whilst studying for your exams, whether it is CFA, FRM, CAIA, CFP or other ESG qualifications.
Here’s a tried-and-tested survival guide to balance them all! We will use CFA exam as an example here but really, it applies to any professional designation you want to take.
- #1. Manage expectations in order to succeed
- #2. Incorporate some studying around workdays, if possible
- #3. Use your weekends wisely
- #4. Have a firm start and end time (for everything)
- #5. Try alternative learning formats in your daily routine
- #6. Use third party study materials to shave off reading time
- #7. Learn actively through practice questions
- #8. Remember to look after yourself and have some life
#1. Manage expectations in order to succeed
- Yours: First, acknowledge and accept that the CFA exams are challenging – there will be some temporary tradeoffs in your personal life for this. You will need extreme discipline and focus to complete the charter. Be honest with yourself in terms of judging the amount of free time and ability to focus, else you would be working hard but not smart.
- Your partner, family and friends: Be frank and let them know why you will be taking the CFA exams, and why it’s important to you. Explain to them that there will be moments of disappearance (to study), unintentional short tempers and grumpiness, but you would still love to spend quality time with them. Oh, and try to be patient when they comment on your CFA exam prep.
- Employer and colleagues: Discuss and pitch to your boss about why having a CFA charterholder is beneficial to the company, and ask for exam sponsorship and time off if possible. Let your colleagues know that too so that they will respect your study time during lunch hours or days off.
#2. Incorporate some studying around workdays, if possible
Every candidates’ personal circumstances is different: whether it is family commitment, being a new parent, demanding job with overtime, or a fresh grad out of university.
However, what unites them is the common goal of studying 300-350 hours over 4-6 months for a CFA exam. Depending on where you are on that spectrum, this means carving out 12-20 hours a week to study.
This means you’ll need to be ruthless with your time, based on your personal circumstances. Anything you can do to alleviate your weekend workload would help, even if it is 1-2 hours per work day. It just has to be sustainable and consistent in your routine.
Here are a few ideas on how to find time around work days for studying, which doesn’t just include finding time to study before or after work:
- Wake up 1-2 hours earlier and study before work: This is a popular and extremely effective method that allows you to study in peace when the world is still asleep. It does require a routine change for night owls though, as you’ll need to have sufficient sleep to be able to focus.
- Study during work commute: Instead of playing games, watching movies or just staying idle, why not look through some notes or listen to some video lectures on FRA?
- Quick review during lunch time or quieter times at work: This could be a good time to tackle a couple of end-of-chapter questions, or reviewing your flash cards or notes.
- 1-2 hours of studying after work and dinner: Only if your work hours are reasonable, and if you find that you can still focus after coming back from work. However, if work is extremely demanding, and you know you would be too tired to focus after work, try scheduling in socials on weekdays instead. This helps relieve stress and leaves the bulk of your weekend free for heavy-duty studying and problem solving (see step #3).
#3. Use your weekends wisely
Depending on how much studying you got done on work days (see step #2 above), weekend is your opportunity to do some catch up, and practice focusing for a longer period of time to mimic exam conditions.
In the extreme scenario, if you can’t get any studying done on weekdays (like me), you’ll need to use bulk of your weekend to catch up on study time.
Obviously weekends are where most social events occur, it is therefore helpful to schedule in some meet ups with friends and family where there is a natural break in your study schedule where productivity dips.
#4. Have a firm start and end time (for everything)
In order to really succeed at juggling all your life’s priorities, you need to be strict andconsistent with your daily routine.
This means that you will need to:
- Make your study plan to ensure you can track your progress and study for a minimum of 300 hours (more for Level 2 and 3). This minimizes anxiety throughout the study process, as you know that you have allocated sufficient study time by using your weekdays and weekends efficiently (see #2 and #3 above).
- Communicate your weekly schedule to your partner and family so that they understand the support you need and when they can expect you to be around (see #1 above). This is so crucial and you need to make sure you do your part when you are spending time with the family to make up for it.
- Have firm start and end times for studying so that you start training yourself early on time management which is useful for exams. But importantly, you don’t miss work/social/family time due to the lack of discipline, which causes resentment and may interfere with your study focus (e.g. if it causes arguments).
#5. Try alternative learning formats in your daily routine
There’s a wide array of learning options for CFA candidates nowadays, why not try out different formats of learning in your daily routine?
- listening to audio lectures while running in the gym (or even during a shower!)
- studying with video lectures while commuting to work
- reviewing flash cards over lunch break at work – flash cards are great for utilizing little pockets of free time as it is portable and breaks down the material in bite-size chunks
#6. Use third party study materials to shave off reading time
While using third party study materials increases your CFA costs, they do cut your reading time significantly by being concise and to-the-point.
This allows you to study more efficiently and not be defeated by the giant wall of texts in the CFA curriculum, which can be overwhelming especially if you are time constraint. Third party study material are especially helpful in Level 1 and Level 2 preparations.
That said, CFA curriculum are useful in other ways:
- End-of-chapter and ‘blue-box’ questions are worth practicing and looking through for each reading.
- Great reference for challenging topics and areas where your understanding is still lacking.
- Especially useful for Level 3 preparations.
#7. Learn actively through practice questions
Instead of rereading your study materials, a more effective strategy is to go through the materials once quickly, and then focus on doing practice questions, and learning from your mistakes.
Rationale is simple: reading is passive, but doing practice questions is a form of active recall that aids learning.
This is backed by a comprehensive research paper, which I’ve handily summarized a list of proven study techniques that are applicable for CFA exams. Worth the 8 minute read to boost your study efficiency!
#8. Remember to look after yourself and have some life
You won’t pass the exams without taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally.
While you have learned a couple of techniques above to manage your time better and study more effectively, it is important to remember to look after yourself in the process as well:
- Ensure you have enough sleep – this has enormous effects on your ability to memorize, recall and comprehend CFA topics. If you’re sleep deprived, make sure you allocate enough hours in the day to catching up, especially before the big exam day.
- What you put in your body also matters a lot. Ensure you eat well and get the right foods for your preparation, and try and cut the booze (at least until after the exams).
- Do incorporate exercises in your weekly routine, especially when you’re tired. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it will give you a nice burst of energy and focus for studying on work days. At minimum, do these stretches at your desk.
- Recognize when you’re starting to burn out. With a busy schedule 7 days a week, it will be natural to run out of steam after a few weeks or months. Recognize the signs of burnout – significant lack of drive to study, especially on weekends, increased irritability and mild depression. Remember to take time off studying every week, and monitor your study progress to stay on track.
Over to you – do you have any tips or techniques on how to manage studying and working full time? Would love to hear about them in the comments below!
Meanwhile, here are other relevant articles you may find useful:
- Proven CFA Exam Study Techniques All Candidates Should Know
- Free CFA Study Planner
- Does Music Help You Study? How To Use Music For Exam Success
- The Best Places For You to Study for the CFA Exams
- How to Sleep Better, Feel More Alert and Maintain Study Focus
- What All CFA Candidates Need to Know about Sleep Deprivation