One of the high points for me in 2014 was the day I was officially granted the Chartered Financial Analyst designation after passing three extremely tough exams. If you want to work in finance, I would strongly advise you to go for it. Not only does it increase your employability, it is also a surprisingly low money investment, compared to other qualifications: around $1,200 per level, a small sum when compared to the tens of thousands of pounds that some of my peers in college had to pay for a Masters degree at, say, the London School of Economics.
But where the CFA qualification really shines is that it is so tremendously useful when you work in finance. It is highly practical and has hugely increased and deepened my understanding of financial markets. I use what I have learned for the exam all the time in my work. It’s only when I am training others that I’m so acutely conscious of how jargon-centric the capital markets truly are… and how proficient this field of study has shaped me to be.
Studying for the CFA is very demanding. But although you have to manage your time with ninja-esque precision, you don’t have to go back to studying full time: it’s a tough ride, but it is certainly doable while holding down even a demanding full-time job. So how do you juggle all your existing commitments?
Set SMART goals, always!
What you need is a specific technique to keep you on track and reduce overwhelm. A technique that makes it possible to know, at any given moment, what you should be working on, and what you can achieve in the limited amount of time that you have available.
The SMART, or SMARTER technique is my weapon of choice when tackling big, daunting projects. By breaking those big projects down into manageable portions, you can make steady progress towards your goal and get there much faster.
SMARTER is an acronym that stands for:
Specific – “I will study chapter 4 from the book about Alternative investment on Sunday”
Measurable – “That chapter is 30 pages long and is quite heavy on theory. My usual speed to digest this kind of material and take revision notes is 5 pages an hour – so that’s 6 hours”
Attainable – “Since I know my average study speed for this kind of material, and I know I can study effectively for about 6 hours on any given week-end day, and I have set aside the whole of Sunday, that goal is attainable”
Realistic – “But wait – we said we’d visit family on Sunday evening? Still, I do have six hours before we go, so yes, given my study habits and that day’s commitments, it’s realistic” – on the other hand it wouldn’t have been realistic to expect to study six hours on a weekday, when I have meetings, phone calls and email to attend to. I would have revised that goal accordingly.
Timely – “This will happen not Someday, but Sunday. The date is in my diary and I won’t let it spill over into Monday!”
Extending – “Even though that goal is attainable and realistic, it does stretch my abilities and willpower. After all, despite the fact that the material is very interesting, 6 hours of deep study in one day would tax anyone’s mental resources!”
Rewarding – “And then I can put away my book with a flourish, enjoy the feeling of a job well done, be proud that I stretched beyond what was comfortable, and settle down to enjoy a chat with family on Sunday evening – that will be a nice relaxing reward to finish the day”
When the going gets tough, set short-term goals
This, in a nutshell, is the SMARTER technique. You can use it all the time, for anything you want to achieve.
When I first set out to study for CFA level 3, I had monthly goals and a reverse planning with intermediary deadlines. The main deadline of course was June 5th, but I needed to make sure I would have covered the whole course in time for that deadline – so I broke it up to distribute all of the concepts I needed to study, over the course of several months, so that I would be finished (and revised) in time for the exam. That enabled me to make sure that I had realistic expectations and that the study load was evenly distributed over the months ahead.
But as I put my head down for the big effort, I worked out weekly, daily and even hourly goals. The harder it gets, the more short-term the goals need to be, for two reasons. One, to make sure you are on track and you are not losing sight of the bigger objective; and two, to give you a sense of achievement as often as possible. This is the only way to keep your momentum going: you have to track your progress and to be able to pat yourself on the back as often as possible, to keep your spirits up.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with an impossible goal, try out the SMARTER framework and focus on one step at a time. Go for it!
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