I had an epiphany recently.
This spring break, I had a chance to shoot hoops at my local park for the first time in two months. As I heaved shot after shot and fumbled my dribble every five seconds, I thought to myself, Man, I really suck at basketball right now…
…and, more importantly, at keeping habits–well, the really good ones at least. You see, I was among well over 180 million Americans who made a New Year’s resolution to kick off 2021. This year, I set ambitious goals as a basketball player: I wanted to shoot over 90% from the free throw line, become a defensive mastermind, and replicate Kyrie Irving’s lethal crossovers on command. With that mindset, you’d think that I’d be any better at basketball in four months’ time. Nope. I probably airballed enough to fill a bag of Lay’s. I could go on, but you get the point, right? Okay, so maybe what I’m currently doing is not working, but I’m definitely not alone here. According to a poll of 2,000 U.S. citizens, it takes roughly 32 days for the average American to break his or her resolution, with 68% of people reporting even shorter time spans. Perhaps you may find yourself among that 68%, which might be why you’re reading this article. If you are anything like me now is the perfect time to break this vicious cycle–and what better way to do so than to forge new religious habits. In the spirit of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, I put together nine tips that I found helpful in jumpstarting new habits and hopefully you will too.
Tip #1: Clearly define your goal and the means to achieve it.
This may seem deceptively obvious at first but if you want to lose weight, just start a new diet and exercise regimen. In the same vein, if you want to be more religious, just pray and recite Qur’an more. In my case, if I want to become a better basketball player, I would just play more. As you can already tell by how the last one turned out, my goal wasn’t specific enough. Should I work on my jumpshot? My ball handling? My defensive stance? What drills should I employ in my workouts? How often should I work towards my goal? Many unanswered questions still remain even with the tip to “just play more.” In a broader sense, you cannot develop a consistent routine to build your habit around without a specific goal and the means to achieving it. After all, the only way we can reach the destinations we desire is by developing the proper roadmaps to get there.
Tip #2: One habit at a time.
As a college student, multitasking can be a great skill, but not for building habits. Many of us, myself included, may take on too much during Ramadan in an attempt to reach our most religious self. Perhaps you may read more Qur’an or pray more rakat than you normally would. While this may seem beneficial in the short term, the sudden overload of habits in a brief time span requires a great deal of willpower. This can make it difficult to sustain these habits past the month of Ramadan. Consider working on one habit at a time–at least initially–to reduce the mental load and increase the chances of those new habits becoming permanent.
Tip #3: Pre-commit to it.
When I say “pre-commit” I mean that we should be fully aware of the time required for integrating our habits into our daily routines. Of course, there’s the renowned 21/90 rule, which claims that it takes 21 days to “create a habit” and another 90 days to deeply embed it into our psyche. A supplemental study conducted at the University College London suggests that it takes the average individual at least 66 days for this process to occur. All this may seem intimidating to process at first with the timeline of at least 2-3 months before seeing significant progress. Even so, I encourage you to read onto Tip #4, as it will make this commitment more approachable in the long run.
Tip #4: Start small…really small.
This may seem counterproductive if you want to see quick results, but, once again, overloading costs a lot of willpower. To limit the possibility of mental burnout, it’s far more sustainable to dip your toes in the water before simply diving headfirst into the pool. This Ramadan, for example, I want to memorize Surah Ar-Rahman in 30 days. Does that mean I should cram in all 78 lines on the first day? Absolutely not. Instead, I should start with as little as 3-5 lines and incrementally increase the line count each day. Even if it will take longer, I know for a fact that I not only will have greater retention of the surah but also make the learning process much more enjoyable. Even if you’re still skeptical, remember, you can’t become the best climber by scaling Mt. Everest. In short, healthy habits take timey. I urge you to be patient, take on your new habit slowly, and gradually work your way up in consistent increments.
Tip #5: Identify possible temptations.
This one is relatively straightforward. If, for example, you want to cut down on your added sugar intake during Ramadan, you may identify desserts like gulab jamun, baklava, or jalebi to be potential culprits to avoid at the iftar table. Or perhaps you may think twice before you chug a whole mug full of rooh afza milk. This tip all depends on the habits you seek to incorporate in your religious journey. This Ramadan, I encourage you to note any repeating distractions from your religious commitments, which may be easier to spot the more you work towards your habit over time. From there, you’ll want to find replacements for these distractions, which is where Tip #6 comes into play.
Tip #6: Substitute your temptations.
If you’ve followed through on Tip #5, that’s great! Now that you identified your temptations, it’s easier to isolate and, ultimately, phase out these temptations from your daily behaviors. Once you do that, you’ll want to find substitutes to satisfy your cravings that will inevitably arise. For instance, if you’re avoiding any of the above-mentioned sweets, then you might search for low-sugar alternatives or a new snack altogether. Pretty soon, you may realize that you can easily live without the constant need to satisfy your sweet tooth. The same logic applies to any religious habit you’re trying to build. However, in this case, your spiritual commitment is not just the habit; it also becomes the substitute for your distractions. Why? Because, in the end, all this is supposed to make you feel good! As you become more spiritually engaged throughout Ramadan, you may find praying nafl rakat or reciting an extra surah to be more rewarding than watching an episode of your favorite TV show. In general, if you can find greater joy substituting some of your distractions with more religious commitments, you will be all the better for it.
Tip #7: Journalize the process.
By no means do you need to write entries spanning the length of a Harry Potter novel. Journalizing can be as simple or extensive as you wish; even typing notes on your phone may be beneficial! The sole purpose of this activity is to reflect on your progression, particularly on any positive takeaways and areas of improvement you can carry over into the next day. Being specific when pinpointing tendencies that may detract from your overall goal may help you to stay on track by uncovering a clearer plan of action.
Tip #8: Find a partner.
Your partner can really be anyone: a close friend, family member, significant other, you name it. The most essential part is to ensure that you’re both holding each other accountable. For example, you and your partner seek to learn more about the hadith, so you both decide to tune into Islamic lectures together. However, if only one or neither of you are actively encouraging one another, it may be easier to “cheat” your way out of this habit. Pretty soon, you and your partner may find yourselves binging shows like Humsafar or Mismatched and losing focus of the goal you initially sought to achieve. I can’t stress this aspect enough when it comes to this tip: accountability is a two-way street and you must treat it as such when building new habits with a partner.
Tip #9: Cut yourself some slack.
At the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re bound to make mistakes somewhere and maintaining habits is no exception. That’s why it’s a generally accepted principle that building habits is not a straight-line trajectory–because it isn’t. It never will be. If you miss a prayer or time slot to recite Qur’an, don’t fret. The progress you’ve already made will not have been in vain. Simply reflect on your mistake (see Tip #7), learn from it, and move onto the next day with good intentions.
BONUS Tip #10: Repeat Tips #1-9
Once you’ve slowly forged one habit using these tips and tricks, rinse and repeat for the next habit and so forth. With that said, you are now more than ready to take massive strides in becoming a new and improved you. Ramadan Mubarak and happy habit-building!