3 Things to Help You Get Things DoneOur Definitive Guide to Productivity

Here at Big 4 Career LAB, we believe that success is an equation. That equation roughly translates to being able to consistently focus on achieving your goals.

Not only are we going to help you come up with great long-term goals, we’re going to show you the most important step after that: Breaking them down into actionable steps.

Just having goals won’t make you successful though, you’ve got to take action on them.

Whether your goal is to succeed as an intern or first year, pass part of the CPA exams, or organize your school schedule and seasonal recruiting, these tools will  help you to plan, focus, and crush your goals.

That’s why it’s a core tenant of the Complete Big 4 Candidate.

Everyone Knows They Need to Set Goals

So why is it that no one does it correctly? Or without deep thought into exactly how those goals are going to be achieved?

Probably because it’s not easy.

Let’s face it… balancing a full class load while trying to do recruiting is challenging. Studying for a big exam while working full time will test your persistence. That’s why our goal is to help you to accomplish all these tasks effectively.

I’ve personally been obsessed with planning my goals and figuring out how to realistically achieve them since about my junior year. But before I was like this, I was just wandering through my high school and college years without a plan.

Okay, you understand that you need to set goals. Like it says above, everyone knows that. But…


  • How many do you need to set?
  • What if they change over time? (Hint: they should…)
  • How far into the future do they need to be?
  • How detailed should each be?

Let’s clear some of the confusion.

How Many Goals Should You Set?

Set as many as you like. Understand that you won’t work towards them all at once. The philosophy for the initial goals are “set it and forget it”. You’ll correct course as you go.

Approach this as a lifelong pursuit. Feel free to dream a bit here.

As a general guideline, let’s aim for 3 to 5 overall (in any category of life). Since we speak mostly about career-related topics, let’s pick 1 to 2 career goals.

We’ll drill down and focus on one of these on your worksheet. Feel free to replicate this as many times as necessary.

What Happens if My Goals Change Over Time?

It’s a good thing. I’d be worried if they didn’t!

People change, mature, and in general the more you learn in life the more your perspective changes. This causes most people to have to adapt their goals along the way.

Remember: we’re crafting the vision of your life. This is not something to take lightly.

How Far Into the Future Should Each Goal Be?

I personally like to visualize how and where I want myself to be in 5 to 10 years. 8 years is my sweet spot, but find what works best for you.

I know what you’re thinking (this is really frustrating!), but don’t worry, this isn’t supposed to be easy. It takes time and effort to really develop your vision.

There’s nothing wrong with going further than 10 years. This is my personal advice to you. If you set goals that are more than 10 years away, make sure you have some others that are 5 to 10 as well.

This step was probably the hardest for me when I first began setting goals correctly. I had never given a lot of thought to how I wanted to be living life 10 years from now. I only set shallow goals that usually had a dollar sign in them or the word “Ferrari” in there somewhere.

Or even worse, all I thought of was retirement. Yikes!

Now, it’s not wrong to think about money and material possessions (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I want a GT-R), but let’s try to dig a little deeper.



How Detailed Should Each Goal Be?

Start with broad goals at first. Since we’re going to dissect them into daily, actionable tasks, it makes sense to start with something broad. When you go to correct course later in life, it’ll be easier to do so with these kind of goals.

Another thing I’ve done before is view certain long-term goals as “themes” or “categories”.

What this means is that I pick a few (really broad) areas in my life that I want to be great at in 10 or more years.

These typically are general, “physical fitness”, “reading more non-fiction books”, “successful businessman”, etc.

This helps me to envision the type of life I want overall. This approach works for me because I’m a big-picture thinker. Feel free to be a little more specific if that suits you better.

​Action Item: Complete the first part of the guide, using Chapter 1 ​and the video below ​as a reference.

The Art (and Science) of Breaking Goals Down

Our mantra for breaking down goals is, “Focus on the process, not the outcome.”

It’s easy to say you want to become a Partner. But unless you do the work day in and day out, it’s not going to happen.

In 1981, Researchers at Stanford studied students who did and didn’t break down their goals. Students who broke down their goals finished their tasks faster, got more answers correct, had greater confidence in their abilities, and were more motivated to complete the goals (1).

If you were studying for a tough accounting final or one of the CPA exams, doesn’t the above sound pretty nice?

Now, following along with the worksheet, we’re going to simply ask “How?” as many times as necessary to your first goal. This is going to allow us to take a big picture goal (the outcome) and break it all the way down to what you can start doing today (the process).

An Example of the “How”

You’ve worked backwards to the point that you know you want a career with the Big 4. That is your goal right? It was mine when I was in school!

How do you plan to land the dream career?

First, you have to get an offer.

You get an offer by nailing the interview (note to self: brush up on interview skills in the coming weeks).

You attain an interview by having a great network (among other things).

In order to get an interview you’ll need to work on your personal brand (resume, cover letter, online, and in-person persona). You’ll also need to work on your networking skills (online and in person).

Many people focus on the application process itself, but applying is something that will be done eventually… remember it’s mostly a formality. The rest is the process we’re after.

You get the picture.

We’ve gone from one long term “goal” (a Big 4 career) to some general short term “actions”. We’re getting into the stuff you can begin working on right now.

Remember: we want actionable steps that are going to propell us, day by day, to our overarching goal.

Hopefully you’re following along with us here on your worksheet and have come up with some good stuff so far. If not, keep working at it, it takes time.

It might sound like now you have some legitimate goals to work towards at this point – but you’ve still got a little ways to go!

Yes – this is tedious and in the beginning a bit of work. You have to be prepared to put in the time and effort. If you’re not then you are probably not cut out for the Big 4 or public accounting in general.

It’s better to plan ahead and be prepared. You’ll quickly see if a goal is realistic or not too if you can or can’t break it down.

To further illustrate, let’s take one of the topics above. You’ll need to do this for the rest as well.

Let’s continue.

  • For personal branding, you’re going to have to start working on your resume. This in itself is a huge item that has to be looked at further. Before we go on to all the other items, let’s look at the resume.
    • Your resume is used to convey a few things: education, experience, leadership, skills, and interests. And guess what? Every single one of these things can be dissected.
      • For education you need to understand your field of study and make good grades.
      • For experience, leadership, and skills, you need to break each of these down for your specific situation and come up with ways to develop in each area (like becoming an officer of a student organization).
      • Same goes for interests, but I’d wager you already have a few. Now would be a good time to evaluate those and see about pursuing another hobby or two, or taking a current interest to the next level.

The cover letter is pretty specific to the position you are applying for, so we’ll hold off on breaking that down until we’ve found companies we want to apply to.

“How” do you plan to get into a networking event? Probably by joining a student organization.

“How” do you plan to work on your networking and interview skills? You’ll need to write out an elevator pitch, then practice it. You’ll want to be doing a few mock interviews before you go on and do the real deal.

This strategy and the following techniques will be invaluable when:

  • You study for the CPA exams or any other industry designation
  • It’s your first year/busy season/internship
  • You’re trying to balance multiple goals (classes, recruiting, being an officer, internship – yes this was my junior and senior years)

At this point you should have a pretty clear understanding of what you need to do. Let’s go over the technique I use every single day that’s going to build consistency and a winning mindset through action and habit.

Action Item: Complete the second part of the worksheet!

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Taking Daily Action Through The Power List

Having your goals broken down still isn’t going to help you unless you take action.

Action cures fear and you’ll quickly notice the confidence you gain from creating winning streaks with the power lists.

That means you’re going to be more confident when networking and interviewing, and who doesn’t want that?

I learned about this technique from the MFCEO Project. Since then, I haven’t stopped using it (habits are really powerful). My only regret is not learning about it sooner in life.

Let’s dive in.

Principles of the Power List

The power list will do a few things for you here. First, it will help you to concentrate on only five critical tasks a day. No more, no less.

This isn’t a to-do list.

That means get “Wash & Fold Laundry” off this list, unless doing your laundry is something you are trying to build as a habit (hopefully it already is, right?).

The goal of the power list is to be putting tasks that are going to either advance you towards a bigger goal or work on building a habit. If you have too many things, you won’t develop the win streak (which is crucial).

To illustrate the power the feeling of winning has over you, let’s let our friend Jerry explain.

Jerry Seinfeld, the legendary comedian, once gave advice to his friend saying, “Get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. Get a big red magic marker. Each day that you do your task of writing, put a big red X over that day. After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

Jerry’s advice was to help his friend consistently write comedy. But the core of his advice is the real key here.

In fact, the power list is going to do the same thing. Once you develop a 37 day win streak, you’re really going to hustle to make sure it doesn’t get broken (so far, my best win streak was 183 days).

If your goal is to build a habit, keep it on your power list for 3 to 4 weeks. Meditating daily, reading 10 pages from a book daily, or exercising are all items I’ve personally made into a habit.

Once the action is a habit, remove it.

While you should work at forming positive habits, our goal here is to get you to break your goals down into daily, actionable goals and execute. Let’s combine the power list with the goals you wrote out earlier.

Adding Your Goals to the Power List

Page 2 of the worksheet has a power list template to get your feet wet. I prefer to use pen and paper in a journal to keep mine.

Note: the original power list doesn’t have what my power list template has, so make sure to check out the improvements. It’s my personal take on the power list after a year spent using it.

Use the goals breakdown we did earlier to figure out which tasks to put on your power lists from here on out.

It’s that simple.

Every time you break down your goals to the point that they’re daily actions, add them to the list. Come up with a general idea of what you need to do on a week to week basis. I found that works best for me. I also like to add items to my power lists a day or two in advance.

First work on winning the day. Then win the week (majority of days with a W, that’s the win streak). Win the month. Win the year. Next thing you know you’ll be winning at life.

Constantly be re-evaluating your goals as you go. And as you progress through your tasks, re-adjust as necessary.

JP Dinnell is a former Navy SEAL. He’s a proponent of the power lists because he understands the power that creating a winning streak has on your success.

Again, let’s continue to optimize and take this to the next level.

Action Item: ​Fill out the Power List Template provided in the Worksheet.

Developing Focus Through Pomodoros

Breaking your goals down is proven to be effective. Power lists are going to help you build the habit of winning. The Pomodoro Technique is the last piece in the puzzle: focus.

As I take a sip of coffee I look over at my computer’s clock. It’s 2:34 A.M. and my exam is a mere 5 hours and 26 minutes away. I had spent the last few weeks since the previous exam gaming and hanging out with my friends at the race track. Every other time I had tried to study for this exam, my mind would just wander and I’d get distracted. Why do I keep waiting until the last minute to cram?

It’s like I didn’t even learn anything from college: I’d only been at Deloitte for 5 months but it was March 10th when I looked at my calendar on Outlook. Quickly realizing there were only 36 more days of busy season left. This is my dream career, so why am I not focused when I’m at work?

Both stories above are illustrations of my life from my junior year in college until about my second year at Deloitte. I kept telling myself that kind of behavior was normal… I mean, this is normal, right?

Common, yes… but normal, definitely not!

Back To Reality

Something I used to consistently struggle with was focusing (clearly). It’s a skill that’s tough to build, but can be done. The Pomodoro Technique is what I used to make acquiring that skill a bit easier.

I discovered it a few years back from a guy named Chris Winfield. This was another “game-changer” for me and since then there’s been no more all-nighters.

Pomodoros aren’t always appropriate to use, for example, when lifting weights. This technique, as you’ll see, is really best when digging into something complex that requires a lot of focus (like studying for an exam, working on audit workpapers, or working on a complex tax return).

FYI the word ‘pomodoro’ means ‘tomato’ in Italian. The founder of it, Francesco Cirillo had a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. He began developing the original idea using that timer to “chunk” his time into more focused blocks of work.

How to Use Pomodoros Step by Step

The Pomodoro Technique is really simple. Pick a task off of your power list and set a countdown timer for 25 minutes. Commit to doing nothing but that task for 25 minutes. Take a 5 minute break, and repeat.

After 4 pomodoros, take a 15 minute break. Then resume with up to 4 more (8 total in the day).

I’ve done a lot of pomodoros in a day before (16 max), mostly when studying. But I’ll be the first to tell you, usually only the first 8 or so are the most productive and focused.

That’s because humans can only give full focus to something for roughly 3 to 4 hours a day(2). And that’s for someone who is skilled at focusing. Conveniently, 8 pomodoros is just over 3 hours.

Eventually, two things will happen. You’ll learn how much time you prefer to work in. I prefer 50-minute blocks with 10 minute breaks, and only when necessary. And you’ll begin thinking in Pomodoros, “ah, yes, this task will take 3 poms”.

One of the biggest complains we get about the recruiting process is the time management aspect of two things: Having a crazy school schedule with all the events, and not having enough time to finish industry exams and aptitude tests.

A huge benefit to this for me was learning how to manage my time on exams. I have no doubt that these tools and techniques will help you by getting you used to working effectively. This means no more running out of time on school exams, CPA exams, or even those pesky online pre-assessment aptitude tests the Big 4 sometimes require.

My Favorite Productivity Tool

You can use a pen, paper, and a phone or watch timer if you like. I personally prefer to use the website KanbanFlow.

To use KanbanFlow, create a free account. Create a board for… you know what? Let me walk you through it with a video.

It takes roughly 100 hours to study for one of the CPA exam sections. That’s 240 pomodoros. At 8 poms per day, you could be ready to sit in 30 days.

Ah, the power of breaking things down!

An example of a CPA board. Kanban is a great way to track your time on a task. Looks like in the screenshot above, I studied for AUD for about 90 hours.

Action Items: Sign up for KanbanFlow and set up your board today.

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