May 8, 2015
by Ellen

CPA Study Plan

It’s that time of year again –CPAs. That means it’s time for my annual CPA study plan blog post. Check it out, and, as always, if you need some help coming up with your own plan, shoot me an email and we can set-up a time to meet!

Here ya go:

Getting ready for the CPA exams? Freaking out? Yeah, I get it. I sat for two bar exams (California and Illinois) and the Ph.D. candidacy exams. The intensity of these life-altering events is enough to make even the steely of us crack. I still feel a little anxious when I think about it — trauma? Maybe. But you can harness that intensity and make it work for, rather than against, you. Use it — jump on the wave and ride it to shore. Your anxiety can become the fuel your brain needs to focus, if you impose a little structure on it. Here’s how.

1) Take a review course. This is a great way to get an idea of the scope of the exam, and the materials provided usually contain a relatively clear explanation of the relevant material.

2) Create your own subject matter outlines. It’s important to create your own outlines, rather than simply relying on the review materials, because the act of independently creating an outline forces you to actually process the material — you have to figure out how it all goes together. Each outline should reflect full understanding of the specific subject matter — if you were a super-genius, this would be your memory (the mastery you aspire to). Having a brilliant outline is crucial because it provides the foundation for your preparation.

3) Progressively memorize the material.

  • Break it down into sections and then break the sections down into layers. For example, take the first heading of the first outline level (I.) and the material that falls beneath it as your first “section.” Then, identify the layers — the heading (I.), the subheadings (A., B., C…), the next level (1., 2., 3…), the next level (a., b., c.,…)….you get the idea. Depending on the complexity of the material, you may have several layers.
  • Notecards are great for memorizing, but before you go there, try writing the outline out several times first. I literally used 100s legal pads when I was studying for the bar — writing out my outlines over and over. You could also type the material, if that works better for you, but there is something about physically writing the material over and over that helps me memorize it. Start with the big picture — the first level of the outline — write it out a few times. Then transfer it to notecards, memorize the notecards, and then write it out again from memory. Pacing around and saying the material out loud helps — kind of getting more senses involved. One of my study partners liked to create flowcharts, too.
  • Every time you add info, repeat what precedes it — like you are continuing the thought. This preserves the logical connections and helps you actually understand the material you are memorizing. For example, first you learn “I.,” then “I., A., ” then “I., A., 1.,” then “I., A., 1., a..” etc.
  • The key to memorization is repetition. Take your outline with you everywhere — stick copies in your bags, car, bedroom, coffee table — put it on your phone. Read through it whenever you have a moment or when you have a little shock of anxiety about the exam.

4) Stay calm and focused. Yes, it’s a herculean task, but it’s also doable. Thousands of people have taken — and passed — the exam. You will, too.

May 1, 2015
by Ellen

Work / Life Balance

Congrats class of 2015! You made it out alive, and now it’s time to move on to the next phase — the “real” world.

Starting at your first accounting job is great — perhaps the best part is that you’re finally making money. (That first paycheck is so, so sweet.) And you are, no doubt, super-motivated to make a good impression and begin working toward your first promotion. That’s great, you should be looking forward, but be careful not to fall into the workaholic trap — the place where you rationalize overdoing it by saying, “hey, this is just temporary, once I’m _____, I’ll be happy and relax.” Because what happens? You keep moving the finish line — first it’s promotion to senior associate, then manager, then partner…. Or it’s another type of milestone you call “success” — an amount of money or certain material possessions that will show you’ve “made it.” But once you’re there, you still feel like  there’s something missing, something more, so you reset the goal and keep going. This is a trap, and it’s a trap that many (most) people fall into.

So how do you stop yourself from falling into the trap? Work / life balance. This is a term you hear a lot these days, and companies are quick to claim they’re the exception to the rule by offering certain perks like casual Friday, on-site daycare, or free gym memberships. But as Nigel Marsh explains in his Ted talk, “How to make work-life balance work”, true work / life balance is not acheived by working out during lunch or being able to stay at the office longer because you don’t have to leave early to get your kids. True balance comes through setting your own boundaries. As Nigel explains, “if you don’t design your own life, someone else will do it for you.”

Watch Nigel’s talk, and give some thought to what you, as an individual, really need to be balanced. Then look at your career and find opportunities that enable you to do those things. You will spend most of your life working, so don’t make yourself wait till you’re retired to enjoy it!

April 24, 2015
by Ellen

Finals Again…Time to Meditate!

The buddhist practice of “mindfulness” has been shown time and again to relieve stress and increase productivity. While meditation of the sitting-on-a-pillow-with-your-legs-crossed-and-eyes-closed-while-chanting-“om” variety is considered the “best” way to do it, mindfulness practice is actually very simple and easy to do no matter where you are or what you’re doing, and, if you’re like me, sitting still to meditate is a near impossibility anyway.

Here’s how to do it. The key to mindfulness meditation is “focusing on the breath,” so stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and take a deep breath in while saying to yourself, “breathing in, I know I am breathing in.” Then breathe out slowly, saying, “breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Then take another couple of breaths saying, “in” then “out,” until you begin to feel a little more relaxed. Then breathe in slowly, saying, “breathing in, I am calm,” then “breathing out, I am letting go.” “Calm,” “letting go.” Try to focus only on your breathing. Random thoughts will pop up, like “what are you doing, you should be studying!” or “this is stupid” or “I think I’ll get pizza for dinner.” But keep refocusing on your breath. Eventually you will stop thinking about other things and relax. Do this for a few minutes and then go for a little walk outside to recenter before returning to your studies.

If your brain is just too worked up to focus on breathing, there are other ways to “meditate” that feel more “productive” and will trick your brain into mindfulness. For example, coloring. Yes, coloring — as in kindergarten. There are buddhist symbols called “mandalas” — circles that contain very intricate patterns meant to reflect the universe. If you take the time to color these intricate designs, focusing soley on the act of coloring and the image you are looking act (not the random thoughts that pop up), the effect is similar to other mindfulness exercises. You can buy mandala coloring books in bookstores and online or you can simply print some for free from various websites. Then grab some colored pencils, turn on some peaceful meditation music, and you’re set!

April 15, 2015
by Ellen

A Tax Day Love Story

Happy Tax Day?!

Are you experiencing your first tax season as an intern and feeling overwhelmed? Or maybe studying for your tax final and rethinking your intended practice area?

Don’t break-up with the code just yet! Here’s a story that will make you fall back in love with taxes:  “Beth and Taxes”

Take a minute to watch this beautiful journey. You won’t regret it.


April 10, 2015
by Ellen

My New Favorite Four-Letter Word


Yes, “done.” Apparently, saying (out-loud) this little word after you complete a task sets off some kind of magical chemical reaction in your brain that boosts your confidence and increases your productivity. Cool, right?

According to Lisa Evans’s recent article, “Why Saying This Four-letter Word Can Transform Your Productivity”, “when we’re concentrated on a task, the brain’s electrical activity is heightened. But the moment we say we’re done with something, the electrical activity in our brain shifts from being activated and engaged into a more relaxed state…. This new relaxed state then allows us to take on the next task and builds our confidence. The more often you complete a task, the more confidence you build to achieve the next item on your to-do list, allowing you to take on even more challenging tasks.”

To really capitalize on the power of “done,” Evans suggests we prioritize our to-do lists not by importance, but by difficulty and time required — start with the short, easy stuff then move on to the harder stuff that takes longer. Or, if we have one huge project that seems overwhelming, break it into tiny parts, saying done after each step, creating momentum that will carry us through to the end.

Hmmm, does it work?

This blog post is…DONE.

I feel better already :)

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