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12 Irrefutable Concentration Tips When Studying For The CFA

Best advice on maintaining your full attention and focus while you are studying.

One of the most difficult thing as a student is not learning to grasp the material or to memorize formula; its being able to focus for long hours on a specific activity while thoughts, people, and every molecule around you seems to be fiercely competing for your attention. Some people are naturally equipped with the ability to ignore distractions and focus on their readings. My totally non-scientific survey indicates that females have an easier time concentrating than their male counterparts.  If you are like me, you get easily distracted when studying and long periods of uninterrupted studying such as that required by the CFA program is akin to torture.

We researched and compiled here the 12 best techniques one can apply immediately when studying for the next CFA exam (or studying for anything really). These tips come from various sources and from personal experience. Unless you have serious ADHD, you should be able to improve the productivity of your study time. Remember that its about learning the required material, not about sitting in front of your CFA books for long hours.

Concentration Tip #1: Study in Intervals

This may be one of the easiest trick to implement to improve your productivity in any activity. Study no more than 90 minutes in a row before taking a break. We all have limits in the time we can maintain our focus on a specific task. Many studies agree that 90 minutes is the average amount of time most humans can perform an intellectual task such as writing, studying or working. After that, it becomes more difficult to concentrate. This is why it is recommended to take a small break, preferably get up from your chair and walk around a bit. It does not have to be exactly 90 minutes, it could be more or less, the point is to break up your studies in manageable time chunks so that you are fully focused on your study session.

Concentration Tip #2: Capitalize on your “high productivity” period of the day

Some people argue that it is best to wake up early and get your work done in the morning. Being a night person, I totally disagree. I found out that I am approximately 35% dumber before 1pm so all my intellectual output in the morning will be sub-par. Actually, all my skills are much lower in the morning so I try to schedule my important activities and productive work later in the day when my brain and body is fully awake. You should find your prime time and use it to perform most of your CFA studying. For some, it will be in the morning, others will be more efficient at night. Obviously, if you have a job, it may be more difficult to work out your study period but I can guarantee you that one hour of studying in your “prime time” is much more efficient than an hour elsewhere in your day.

Concentration Tip #3: Eliminate distractions

eliminate distractions

This should be a given but many candidates study with their laptop or cell phone which are monstrous sources of distraction. There is a very short list of individuals who need to stay connected with the outside world most of the time. This list includes Batman, the President, on-call surgeons and a few others. This lists most likely does not include you which means you can afford to be fully disconnected from the outside world for 90 minutes study intervals. This does not involve training yourself to not look at your phone or Facebook while studying. It means not having these devices in your vicinity while studying. No matter how hard you try to ignore your laptop while learning to compute diluted EPS, you will eventually think about checking your email. Everyone knows checking an email inevitably leads to watching videos of baby kangaroos swimming at the beach or fearless honey badgers fighting cobras. Do not leave yourself that option and study in an environment free of technology by isolating yourself completely from the outside. Coffee shops may be a popular place to study but there is usually a significant amount of circulation and noise so it makes it harder to concentrate. When you hit a boring topic, you will suddenly start wondering would that huge espresso machine costs or amused by how much the guy on the next table resembles to Jafar (the bad guy in Aladin). If you know you are prone to being distracted, make your surrounding as boring as possible so that you have no choice but to focus on the studying.

Concentration tip #4: Fight Off a Wandering Mind by:

  • Solving some problems instead of reading

When you find yourself re-reading the same page for the thousandth time, move on to problem solving. Since problems are shorter, it is easier to remain focus while solving them. Besides, you are more actively involved when practicing a question then when performing your reading. Therefore, you are more likely to remain focus.

  • Taking a break

Even if you commit to 90 minutes study intervals, if you can really no longer concentrate, it is better to take a break or even call it a day. As the exam approaches and the study periods get longer, there comes a point where your brain is completely saturated, nothing can be gained from forcing yourself to sit in front of a book, just perform a completely different activity to get your mind off the CFA.

Concentration tip #5: Explain the concepts out loud

Instead of just performing your readings quietly and then move on, teach the topics you just learned to someone. You can either try to explain how to value a convertible bond to your girlfriend/boyfriend, spouse, friends, dog, cat, fish or even your imaginary friend. The important thing is to explain it out loud in plain English. I have personally done that for all three levels and I can tell you that this method helps you stay focused since its almost impossible to loose your concentration while explaining a topic. I dont want to brag but I can also tell you that my cat knows a fair deal about valuation of interest-only tranches of a Collateralized Mortgage Obligation…

Concentration tip #6: Be physically active

Various studies show the benefits of being physically active on the mind. However, who need these studies when you can perform your own test. Try studying when you have low energy and compare that with a study session following exercise of at least medium intensity (and unless you are 90 years old, eight months pregnant or chronically ill, a walk around the block does not count as medium intensity physical exercise). If you are human, you will be much more focused after an exercise session so scheduling gym/sport before your study time will increase your productivity.

Concentration tip #7: Avoid studying after a big meal (or avoid eating a big meal before studying)

In fact, just avoid big meals altogether, what is the point of eating beyond what your body needs. After a meal, blood is needed to fuel your GI tract while it is performing its digestive functions. This extra blood (and the oxygen it carries) is therefore not being used by your brain to focus on learning the material. Your body’s resources are therefore busy assimilating calories instead of assimilating the arcane swap valuation techniques and other mystical concepts. This is also why we usually feel tired after a large meal. Watching an action packed martial arts thriller while a bit tired is fine but if you are already sleepy while trying to grasp the nuances of FIFO and LIFO and the repercussion of their use on future CFO, its a battle you just cannot win…

Concentration tip #8: Get adequate sleep

Along with regular exercise and balanced eating habits, proper sleep is part of the “maintaining a healthy body to fuel a healthy mind” type of advice. I understand this is something most of you have heard numerous time but this best tips list would simply be dishonest if it omitted to include these. Although everyone knows that you need adequate sleep to remain focused, students often cram until late night and drink massive amounts of coffee and Redbull to stay awake. Focus on studying efficiently rather than studying long hours. As this common ninja proverb says:

“the most lethal ninjas are not always awake but when they are, they kill with razor sharp precision.” (Unknown Ninja)

The ninjas who neglect their sleep to train until exhaustion will surely make a fatal mistake when the time comes to perform a real mission…


Concentration tip #9: Keep a pad to write unrelated thoughts

It is extremely difficult to tame a wandering mind and I do intend to post some techniques on that topic in the near future. In the meantime, it is important when studying to know how to nudge your mind back to the actual studying rather than let it drift to an unrelated topic. Nevertheless, while studying, we frequently have random genius thoughts such as getting an aquarium to liven up the living room or bringing your date to that new Korean BBQ place downtown to show how original and exotic yet manly you are. In fact, I can confirm that my best ideas come either when I am studying or in the shower. This is why I always carry a pad to write down my brilliant ideas and think about them later (does not work well in the shower but its perfect while studying).

Concentration tip #10: Take some time to “get in the zone” before studying

To really understand what I mean by getting in the zone, I urge you to read this post which explains how to approach studying with a warrior mentality. Great warriors rarely lack concentration on the task at hand and it is not just because it is rather difficult to loose focus when a fuming brute is running toward you swinging an axe. A good warrior prepares before the battle and enters into a mindset that phases out everything except the upcoming fight. In order to “get in the zone” and mentally tune out all distractions, you can devise a routine that you perform before studying. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to visualize the material you will go through and prepare your notepad, pencils and study guides. This preparation time can be seen as a ceremony, think of it like the hockey player lacing his skates before an important game: to everyone’s eyes its just a guy lacing his skates, for the player its a sacred ritual that allows his mind to forget everything that is going in his life and converge all his thoughts toward the game.

Concentration tip #11: If a topic is too boring to keep you focused, move on to more interesting material

As you probably know if you started studying for the CFA, some of the assigned readings are quite long and dry. Given the variety of topics, chances are there is some material that makes you want to eat a bowl of ricin. Please, before you reach that point, just drop the offending topic and move on to a topic that is more motivating. There is no order to the assigned readings and eventually, everything must be covered so there is nothing wrong in leaving the boring stuff forwhen you have more energy or your concentration is better.

Concentration tip #12: Be the Bawss! Control your mind

I am not really the motivational guy who will tell you to believe in yourself, to take charge and that you can accomplish anything with hard work and the power of love. That’s some Care Bear stuff (although hard work is never a bad idea). We usually prefer taking a more pragmatic, down-to-earth approach at Financial Analyst Warrior.

Nonetheless, if you have trouble with your mind wandering left and right, remember one thing: you are the boss. Only you (and the bald guy from X-Men if he decides to) can control your thoughts. I realize it may sound a tad schizophrenic but you can stand up to your mind and slap it back to the study material instead of just following it wherever it takes you.  This is one of the valuable lessons I learned from practicing martial arts: regardless of how agitated and undisciplined your mind is, everyone can learn to tame it and teach it to focus on a task. I am working on a post that will provide you with specific techniques to increase your ability to control your mind. Regardless of how difficult it is for you to concentrate on your study, you can “force” your brain to focus if you recognize that you are the leader.

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