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How to Turn Your CPA Exam Strategy Into a System

Someone sits outside and cross legged with a laptop on their lap with greenery behind them.
Photo by Windows via Unsplash.

Guess what: systems aren’t just for work — they’re for your studies, too.

Score releases are still happening into today, and if you haven’t passed or still have another section waiting for you down the road, it may be time to start expanding your systems building beyond your workday and into your CPA exam strategy.

What does this mean? For women in accounting, this means you have to turn a winning strategy into a daily habit.

Maintaining a healthy, daily habit works miracles for your productivity, overall health, even your relationships. But, they can be pretty hard to develop.

This may be because the process of developing habits involves a “habit loop,” a three-step process that happens in your brain. According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, most people struggle to successfully develop a habit because they don’t understand how habits develop in the first place.

According to Charles, the first part of the “habit loop” is a “trigger” that sends a signal to your brain telling it to let a certain behavior play out.

The second step is the behavior itself. And, the third and final step is the reward, which sends something it likes to the brain and helps the brain remember the “habit loop” again.

So, now that you know the process behind the development of habits, how can you best create a habit out of your exam studies?

  1. Don’t overwhelm yourself

  2. Be consistent

  3. Blend your habits together

  4. Reward yourself!

Easier said than done? Maybe. Maybe not.

Don’t overwhelm yourself

An open laptop with an open notebook and pen, cup of coffee, and flowers on a desk.
Slow and steady wins the race, especially when a cup of coffee is involved. Photo by Nick Morrison via Unsplash.

Did you know that the average person is most productive for only three hours in a day?

Did you know that the most effective to-do lists only list about 3-4 big tasks to complete in a day?

Women in accounting and finance are already doing a little bit (or a lot) of absolutely everything: running businesses, working a corporate or public accounting job, in a lot of cases parenting and taking care of their families. Add studying for the CPA exam on top of that and you’re looking at a schedule that doesn’t have any time for sleeping.

Developing a habit out of your study strategy won’t just help you pass the exam — it’ll also free up energy from your body and your mind that you can use somewhere else.

According to Duhigg, the more a habit starts to develop, the less your brain starts to work, because the behavior starts to become automatic. In other words, your brain is creating a system out of the habit you’re trying to create, which lets it process the behavior without having to expend any energy. But, you won’t be able to get to this if you try to bite off more than you can chew too soon.

So, be realistic with the habit you’re trying to develop. Are you trying to fit in an extra hour to your usual routine or are you trying to move through an entire textbook a week?

The smaller you start, the higher your guarantee to solidify your habit. It’ll be easier to stay motivated, see the end result as attainable, and avoid burnout.

Be consistent

If you’re not showing up every day to work at creating your exam studies into a routine, the odds that you’re going to develop your strategy into a habit are...small.

Women in accounting are busy. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody has an off day, and even in the middle of your CPA exam studies, this is no different. It might even be more true then!

You can give yourself a day or two throughout this process because we’ve all been there. But, this may mean that you’re making the development go slower. You may even set it back pretty decently.

A person with glasses and a red shirt looks the left and laughs. There are trees in the background.
There are pros and there are cons when it comes to habit development — what your process looks like is up to you. Photo by Eye for Ebony via Unsplash.

A study shows that the average time it takes for someone to develop a habit is anywhere between 18 to 254 days. The median amount of time it took for someone to solidify something into a habit was 66 days. So, it can even be possible to go through the entirety of the exam without ever really developing the habit of studying.

But, if you dedicate yourself to showing up every day, you could end up developing a system that makes the rest of your exam process that much easier.

Blend your habits together

You already have habits. You like to have a glass of water in the morning before you do anything else, you have to shower before bed because you don’t like to go to sleep with the day still on you: those are all habits.

So, leverage the habits you already have to create new ones.

If you already have a habit of waking up early in the morning to work out, download a lecture or two that you can listen to while you exercise to get that extra study time in.

Think about the habits that you already have and how you can play off of those to create new systems for your exam strategy.

Reward yourself!

A person laying down in bed.
Don't forget to treat yourself! Photo by Leighann Blackwood via Unsplash.

This last step is key if you want to make your behavior into a habit!

Some habits naturally release dopamine into your system, like eating sugar, which is why it’s so easy to reach for that candy bar in the checkout aisle. That’s also why developing habits, like completing a certain amount of studying a day or hitting timed milestones for your certification, is so challenging. Studying doesn’t exactly release dopamine.

That means you have to give your brain a signal to associate the behavior with something else it likes.

Find something that you’d like to reward yourself with at the start or end of each study session that you’re trying to make into a habit. Maybe a nice pastry at the end of your morning session, or a cup of your favorite latte at the start of your studies.


To any women in accounting who are trying to develop a habit out of their CPA exam studies: it’s going to take some work. But, you’ll get there sooner rather than later if you:

  1. Choose realistic habits to develop

  2. Show up every day

  3. Leverage the habits you already have

  4. Treat yourself with every session

Creating an automatic system out of your exam studies will relieve you of some of the stress that comes with the exam journey, will help you reach your goals more steadily, and, last but not least: it’ll guide you to passing the CPA exam.

What parts of your exam strategy do you want to turn into a habit?


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