How to Pass the CFA Exam with an Incredibly Busy Life

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By Mfreke Inyang
Financial Analyst, PNC
Founder, Brick City Alumni Group

This June I just finished the gruelling study process that led to sitting for the CFA Level I exam. It was a long and lonely time full of the typical roller coaster of emotions the exam invokes. I laughed, I cried, I pulled out the tiny hairs on my bald head. 

While most CFA candidates have the difficulty of meshing work and life with the rigorous study commitment, it’s safe to say I had a few more obstacles than most. While working full time, I’m also pursuing my MBA part time at night. My wife is working on her Master’s Degree full time and we have two young children both under the age of three who are in constant motion. I also run, with her help, a small non-profit for local high school students in my “spare time”. 

Needless to say, these past few months have been trying to say the least. On the bright side, I have developed the ability to fall asleep pretty much anywhere at anytime. If falling asleep quickly ever becomes an Olympic sport, I’m golden. 

So how did I manage it?

As far as attempting to juggle this hectic lifestyle, I picked up a few habits that have helped make it somewhat manageable. We’re all familiar with the tips and tricks when it comes to effectively studying for the exam. I wanted to write a little about a few things I did to help manage the rest of my life while preparing for the test. 

I know that everyone who attempts the CFA exam has different circumstances in their life, but I hope some of the concepts can be applied to whatever you have to overcome. Because everyone loves lists, I’ve compiled the top three things I did to help from going insane. 

1. Do just enough to achieve your desired result

Figure out what you want. Exactly what you want.

Time, mental energy, and effort are all finite resources. 

You have to treat them that way if you want to be able to juggle multiple responsibilities along with studying for the exam. Before embarking on any task that will require any of these three resources (pretty much everything) it’s important to decide ahead of time what you want your desired outcome to be. Do you want to be a top performer at work or is it fine to be above average for right now? Do you need an ‘A’ on your next exam or will you be fine getting a ‘B’? 

If you know what you want the outcome to be for anything you plan on doing before starting, you can figure out exactly how much time, mental energy, and effort you will need to accomplish that. 

Put just enough effort to achieve your result. Excess is waste.

Once you’ve reached that minimal level of output needed to reach your goal – stop. There are no brownie points in life for putting extra effort into something when it’s not necessary. I know this goes against the typical “give it 110%” mentality that we’ve been taught so let me be clear. I’m not saying that you should do just enough to get by in everything while studying for the CFA. I shot for A’s in all of my MBA classes while studying for the exam. I also decided ahead of time that I didn’t want to let work suffer during my study period. 

I didn’t always succeed in achieving each goal but I knew what I wanted and adjusted my actions to try and achieve that. As you become more familiar with your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be better at figuring out what your personal minimum level of output is for each goal you set. 

2. Stay focused on the task at hand

One step at a time.

When you have several things that have to be completed, it’s easy to look too far ahead and become overwhelmed with everything that you need to finish. This is something that needs to be avoided at all costs because feeling overwhelmed is a sure fire way to stopping completely. 

Multi-tasking is overrated.

It’s important to have a one track mind as often as possible when working on several things. If you’re studying, then just worry about studying for the moment. If you’re doing something for work, focus on that before moving to the next thing. Do not multi-task unless its unavoidable (which will probably be pretty often anyway). 

Imagine your job is to spray paint one side of the entire Wall of China. If you step back and look at how massive the wall is, you’re probably going to see how ridiculous your task is and decide to stop. If you instead focus on coloring the next stone, you’d be surprised how much space you’d cover. Taking on the CFA in the middle of a very busy life is ridiculous. You will have several small successes and failures along the way but the key is to avoid being overcome by the thought of it all. You’re here now. 

Just color the next stone. 

3. Live in a positivity cocoon

As you tell people about what’s going on in your life, you’ll be surprised at how much negativity you encounter. 

I can’t count the amount of “You guys are crazy. That’s way too stressful” type of comments that my wife and I have heard from friends and family. Throughout this time you’ll encounter people who range from the well meaning who worry that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, up to the outwardly negative individuals who actively want to see you fail. With enough time, these opinions will weigh on you and cause you to begin to doubt yourself. 

You have to build a fortress of positivity that you will live in for the next few months. In fact, you should be positive to the point of delusion. The mind is a funny thing and being in the right mental space is often more important than ability. That means taking time out for prayer and meditation. It also means spending your precious free time with the friends and family who build you up. This is not the time to allow doubt to creep in. 

There are no guaranteed routes to success but I hope that these tips help you on your way to “the big dance” at the CFA testing center. I’d love to hear your thoughts and the ideas that have worked for you in the past.

Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan


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