How to tame time

February 2022

Jackie Durham takes you on a pun ridden journey through the annals of time, CIMA-student style.

‘Tempus fugit’ (roughly translated as ‘time flies’) was one of my late father’s favourite expressions. It was in regular use when my sister and I were young and there were things to be “getting on with” – probably things that as children wouldn’t have regarded as important.

However, as an adult, one is always desperately aware that tempus really does fugit!
Never more so than when attempting to do the impossible: succeed in a busy finance role, whilst studying CIMA and quite probably also juggling raising a family and/or trying to hold onto a social life. Yet in a strange way that awful pressure of time, the sense that it’s running away with us, is what provides motivation, the need to crack on and get things done. Without the constraints of time where would we be?

It seems to me that it isn’t ‘time’ itself that’s the issue, it’s how we manage it. After all, time goes very slowly when waiting for that watched pot to boil (or waiting for Godot – one of my personal favourite expressions), but absolutely flies by when we are “having fun”.

While we can’t stop the march of time, we are masters of our own time and, in theory at least, we can use what time we do have well – that’s where planning comes in. Sorry, you must have known planning was going to feature somewhere! Having a plan, fixing on an exam date and then working backwards from that date to produce a scheme of work which covers all the syllabus content, builds in time for revision and question practice while also plotting in important personal events and goals, is the way forward. Obviously, you need to stick to the plan (minor point), keep checking back to make sure it is still working for you and making any necessary adjustments to accommodate changes at work or at home.

Personally, I think one of the biggest issues here is that our preferred way of studying isn’t always available to us or is one which isn’t the easiest to manage in the context of studying and working. The key is to think about how we’d like to study in an ideal world and see how we might make that work in practice. When we were at school or university we probably had a fair amount of time for our studies – even if we didn’t choose to spend all of it studying!

Depending on the courses we were taking, we might have long periods of study time where we could research, consider or debate before ever writing a word in an essay or an exam. We would probably have a tutor to guide us and the physical, and mental, space to spread our papers out, open our textbooks, make notes, etc., a nice, well-organised approach to study.

By the time we get to professional exams the luxury of full-time study is behind us and that dedicated study time is long gone. Studying becomes something to be squeezed in how and when one can, a quick chapter read on a mobile device while computing, a quick watch of a YouTube tutorial while making dinner, a few practice questions once the children are in bed, Post-It notes on/in the fridge is far more likely to be the norm.

If this isn’t your preferred way of studying, it can be very hard to move into a different mode.
While ‘bite sized’ chunks of study work for many (as do one-at-a-time exams – I remember when students had to sit the four exams at a level all in one go), they aren’t for everyone.

If that’s the case, your study plan will look different to the person who is more than comfortable with a ‘study-as-and-where-you-can’ approach. It is possible to build in chunks of time for study (or to complete an essential full mock exam), it just requires more forward planning and an absolute commitment not to let that precious time slot slip or be used for other things. Have a study plan on the wall so that friends, family and colleagues can see when you have planned your study periods and hopefully avoid them becoming the “thieves of time”.

Writer Leo Tolstoy said that the two greatest warriors were patience and time; he was referring to them in terms of a physical battle but both also come in useful when battling exams.
We need the patience to make the plan, to put the work in, develop and refine our exam skills and, if needed, the patience and resilience to reflect and regroup should another attempt be required. Time, and the management of it both before and within the exam, is the other weapon in our armoury if we make it work for us. That’s where time management in the exam itself comes in; good exam technique and effective time management are often the difference between success and failure.

There are plenty of articles and webinars in the CIMA Study Planner to assist with time management. Also, as noted in last month’s PQ article, question practice is a very good way of refining time management skills.

But… what happens when those exams are all behind you and there’s no more pressure to fit study in alongside all those other competing demands on your time? Let’s hear it direct from a student who recently sat her Strategic Case Study exam: “Feeling lost now. What do you do when not working towards an exam?”

• Jackie Durham, Study Support Manager at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA