No doubt, the year 2020 has brought realities entirely unforeseen to us all. Whether the global pandemic was a minor inconvenience or a soul-shifting trial, many are now looking ahead to what 2021 may bring.
Time is a funny thing. Dates are just our arbitrary way of segmenting time. Logically, then, a calendar flipping days does not herald anything new for our circumstances. Regardless, one year ending and another beginning often invites people to consider all that has happened in the past year.
Reflection is always a welcome activity for any believer. Taking stock of ourselves is part of our tradition of muhāsaba: to account ourselves to ourselves. The changes we want to make do not need to be packaged up as New Year’s resolutions, ‘new year new me’, or other traditions that give you a prescribed time to achieve personal goals.
Real and lasting change can begin anytime and relies on a small but critical framework.
Realign your intention and take stock
We all have aspects of our lives we wish to improve. The process begins with mental preparation for the path ahead. One key place to begin is with a strong intention.
Every part of your self-improvement can and should be a vehicle towards Allāh.
Your fitness goals and your wish to eat healthier can begin with the intention of looking after your body, an amānah from Allāh, by keeping it strong and not abusing it. Better food consumption can be inspired by the eating habits of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and the Sunnah-inspired food to emulate the Best of Creation.
Your personal development goals can include the traits and behaviours you want to eliminate so that you can build more harmonious relationships with your family and friends. You can do this to present a better public face of Islam, as well as to challenge your ego and nafs.
Your home renovation projects can be done with the intention of building a peaceful and beautiful sanctuary for your home, a place where family ties are strengthened and children feel loved and secure in their space.
Your spiritual objectives can be to challenge the parts of your heart that you know have hardened and need treatment. You can make the intention to build discipline with your ‘ibādah so that you realign your day’s priorities for the sake of Allāh.
Your goal to revisit a lost skill, rekindle a passion project, or up-skill yourself can be done with the intention of being a more productive and helpful believer – one that serves others through the blessings they have been given by Allāh.
Intention is the heart and the beginning of everything we do as Muslims. It is something to be regularly revisited, scrutinised, and refreshed – sometimes more at the end than the beginning.
Start small and build momentum
We have all come across the hadīth that the best of deeds are the small yet continuous ones. This applies in the realm of worldly matters just as much as worship-based acts:
Pair up your goals! The usual goals people reach for are to do with fitness, career and new skills. We expect to work for them through a framework and particular methodology: our deen-orientated goals are no different. Learning Arabic or mastering an Islamic science doesn’t fall from the sky, just as being able to plank- with proper form- for 5 minutes doesn’t. The same rigour and approach we apply to dunya aspirations needs to be applied to our Islamic objectives. Pair up your goals, so if you wish to spend half an hour a day exercising for example, accompany that with an equal amount of time focusing on the Book of Allah, in any way you find most beneficial.
Big and quick changes seldom last. The initial enthusiasm usually, and predictably, gives way to the burn-out once the excitement dwindles. Changing ingrained habits should begin with small changes that are slowly and gradually built upon into something lasting. Your ‘small’ worldly goals related to self and professional life can be paired with ‘small’ deen-inspired habits. Are you punctual with your morning and evening adhkar? Do you recite Du’a Safar when you bundle the kids in the car and set off? Can you at least prolong one sujood a day during your 5 prayers? Can you set aside daily change for sadaqah?
Really ask yourself what you want: Your goals should be important to you. Ask yourself why you want what you do, and think of the benefits it will bring to you. At any given moment, you should be able to answer your ‘why’ without a second thought. This will set your firm foundation.
Set a tight list of achievable goals: Once you have set out the myriad of things you want to achieve, sort them into a hierarchy of priority. Focus on the top three priority goals to begin with, and devote your energy to these specific goals as you begin.
If your goals are big, break them up: Segment a big goal into smaller achievable tasks that you can have the satisfaction of reaching at regular intervals. Consult the SMART framework for goal-setting and, if you wish, allocate reasonable deadlines to each goal.
Stay positive, because you will (probably) slip up: Factor in set-backs into your overall goals, knowing that such setbacks are inevitable for most of us. It is imperative to stay positive and keep an upbeat attitude in getting to the final outcome. Scrutinise when and why you slipped, and safeguard against it for the future. When you wobble, do not throw in the towel. A setback is only a set-back – you are still in the game.
Review your goals regularly: Consult back with your list and review where you are versus where you anticipated to be. If you want to adjust time-frames, do so. Keep progress going even if it is slower than you hoped, it’s all still movement. There is a reason why our prayers are 5 times a day and punctuated at different times, humans need reminders spread out. We have particular times of the day where dua is more likely to be answered, special months where we exert ourselves and blessed gatherings we should seek out. All of these are different vehicles to returning to our ultimate objective. Your worldly and deen-orientated goals both require regular review to maintain momentum.
Find your tribe… and protect yourself from the others
We live in a world where not everybody who is watching you is necessarily cheering you on. Be careful with whom you share your goals and aspirations. If you can avoid it, do not open yourself up to the risk of jeopardising your intention by drawing attention to yourself, because it may have the potential to lead to seeking validation from others or feeling discouraged when your public cheerleading dwindles.
Share your goals, and seek encouragement from, only a select number of trusted people who you know sincerely mean you well and want you to succeed. This makes it easier to focus on your priorities and keep your intentions intact. It will also allow you the delicious satisfaction of toiling away and accounting yourself only to yourself (and a few select others) when it comes to your goals.
When it comes to those you trust, a support group with motivated and like-minded individuals can give you the right level of encouragement you need when you’re lagging. You can use these people to be accountable to, whether that’s a group of people with similar fitness, personal development, hifdh or professional goals. There is a reason why the teacher-student relationship is so cherished in Islamic learning. Having someone to check back in with keeps our enthusiasm going. Seek out or create a safe, trusted circle of people who are committed to the same thing as a starting point. Use the value of this community to share your setbacks and progress, as well as seeking tips and ideas.
Ask Allāh to bless it
The success is in the effort, not the final result.
As believers, we are process (not results) orientated, and we believe that the final outcome is up to Allāh. As long as our efforts – which are bolstered by a sound intention – are there, then whatever flows from that will be khayr whether we see it or not. Sometimes, the ultimate ‘success’ of your attempt to change is not actually achieving that change, but it is in the way you strengthened your relationship with Allāh during the journey.
Keep turning back to Him with the changes you want to make and continue to ask Him to pave the way for those changes to happen. Remind yourself that your fitness, family, personal, or professional goals may feel dunya-orientated, but everything in the life of the believer is integrated. Striving for progress on all these fronts will be a process that will be much easier to handle when you regularly return to the One who guarantees your success.
Integrate Allāh into your plans for change, because although you will need to put in the sweat and tears, it is only through His Permission that success will flow through. As Muslims, we are not people of quick fixes or seasonal resolutions. We are in for the long haul of regular introspection and action. No matter the outcome of your goals, keeping Allāh at the beginning, middle, and end of your progress is one strategy that has no chance of failing.