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The Secret Sauce of Successful People

Ramadan is known for its ups and downs.  Moonfighting arguments reach a fever pitch the days before Ramadan (magnified nowadays by social media), then drops like a rock once the fast begins.  Motivation for 'ibadah also peaks in the first few days like runners taking off at the beginning of a marathon, only to spiral downwards towards the middle, and only pick back up again in the last 10 days before the 27th night.

Rather than jumping up and down, we want consistent spirituality.  When the moonfighting starts, we consciously put shaytaan and our nafs on “unfollow” and we stop retweeting that spiritual muck.  We are calm before, during, and after Ramadan.  The same is true of our worship during.  It will increase, as it must, and it is consistent throughout as much as possible for all 30 days.  When it goes down post-Ramadan, it's a gentle drop rather than a frenetic effort to chuck all spirituality out the door post-'Eid.

Some of the ingredients to the secret sauce of success in any endeavor include having lofty yet achievable goals, working smartly by recognizing which actions provide maximum benefit, planning a feasible plan forward, consistently moving the ball towards your goal by achieving just a bit more, persevering through those days when you don't have motivation, and reviewing your plan to ensure you keep on track.

Within all of those, you must take into account the people who depend on you and how to keep them happy while you also take care of yourself – I can't underscore this last point enough.  We don't live in a vacuum where we can do what we want and the rest of the world isn't constantly demanding our attention.  People who are successful manage their own needs amidst others.  They don't live in an either / or paradigm, but they look creatively within their situation with an “and” mindset.  For a good example of this in action, take a look at famous athletes such as Hakeem Olajuwon or all the Muslim soccer players in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  They're fasting AND they're playing an intense game of futbal ;)

In the first part, we covered pre-training to get us warmed up for the upcoming Ramadan triathlon of siyam, salah, and Qur'an.  In the second part, we covered goal-setting and planning out how to think about the time each goal will consume on a daily basis.  Let's now consider how we bring this alive into our daily schedule and keep ourselves riding high for the full month, insha'Allah.

Tools for Ramadan Success

The following are tools I recommend for keeping oneself in Ramadan mode throughout the month:

  1. Calendar / Planner
  2. Motivational Spiritual Talks
  3. Support Groups

1. Calendar / Planner

The calendar / planner should contain your monthly, weekly, and daily agenda.  It should contain the following:

  • Appointments: Events that must happen at a specific time.  This can include meetings, doctor's visits, car repairs, and most importantly, prayer times at the masjid.
  • Single Tasks: This is anything else that needs to get done in the day.
  • Important Daily Habits:  By important, what I mean are those things which don't have a time to complete and may not even have to be completed, but knowing if you did them consistently would result in an exponentially better life.  Some of these would include working out to keep fit, giving your kids quality time, qur'an reading / memorization, the five daily prayers, and developing new skills / talents through reading and practice.

I've intentionally emboldened important daily habits, as these are the foundation of a successful person generally, and particularly in Ramadan.  To help you understand why, watch the following video

YouTube Preview Image

How you decide to deal with Important Daily Habits on your calendar is up to you.  You can do one of three things:

  1. Schedule them like an appointment:  Do them consistently at the same time daily.
  2. Schedule them like a single task: Each day, have the habit tracked somewhere as a task.  Place it in the schedule first before you put down anything else, then put everything else around it.
  3. Hybrid: Place some important daily habits at specific times and others simply keep them recorded, and then decide where you'll put at the time you plan your day.

Let's look at an example of a calendar which captures all of this (click the image, it expands :)).

mmpart3cal

I've colored coded them so that green is important daily habits, yellow is appointments, and blue is single tasks.  I realize it's possible that something can both be an important daily habit and treated like an appointment (eg fajr at the masjid), and as well, there may be certain things which are important, but happen only once.  Don't get too caught up on that, but focus on whether something is important and if it's scheduled as the highest priority in mind.

The first thing you should fill out are your important daily habits.  Notice that I've filled many (but not all of them) at a specific time in the week.  So fajr and isha / tarawih are always at the same time.  Other prayers like Dhuhr, asr, and maghrib are also on the calendar at specific times, but because a person may be doing them independently, if they have to manipulate the time a bit to adjust to day to day demands, they can do that during that day.  Sometimes, an appointment may occur at the planned usual time, so move the prayer around it to accommodate it.

One habit to note is the Qur'an reading habit.  This is an important daily habit, but for this hypothetical person, it's not feasible to do it at the exact same time every day, so notice that it's placed at the very top of each day (as an all-day event) simply as a means of tracking.  When the time comes to plan the day, the person can choose where best to put in their one hour of Qur'an reading.  In this example, the person decided that after waking up and getting their bearings a bit, they'd read Qur'an for an hour first.  The next day, this hypothetical person decided they would read Qur'an during their lunch break on the job.  Maybe on day 3 they wake extra early before fajr and have lots of energy and decide they'll take advantage of the time to fill their Qur'an quote, even though they haven't put it down, but they know it's coming.

After the important daily habits, on Sunday this person decided to fill their time taking care of the home, doing chores, groceries, and taking the car for a cleaning.  In the evening, this person either rests before iftar or spends quality time with the family, and does this every single day.  On Friday and Saturday, their evening routine is a bit different because of gatherings they plan to attend that week.

Each day, the person will come back to their calendar to look at not only the current day, but what's coming ahead in the next 6 days as well (a one week view).  They can plan out the most important activities to complete that day, place it in the agenda for that calendar, and then make sure to complete everything on there.  If they go over the time and can't complete something in the allotted time, they can adjust the schedule as needed to bring down the amount of work they think they can complete in the day, move tasks to be completed later, and then revisit them the next day (or week) if needed.

Because we often underestimate the time to complete certain work, I personally think it's better to plan out only the current day in detail on an hour-by-hour basis either in the morning of that day or in the evening before bed.

Also please note that I have intentionally added sleep all over this example calendar.  Sleep is important when you're fasting 16 hours daily and praying late nights.  Since you won't get all your sleep at night, try to find times during the day to get it, maxing out at 8 hours.  Do not spend all day sleeping as some do, as there is no virtue in this.  At the same time, don't think you can feasibly neglect it and only have 4 hours of sleep each night.  No matter what you've read about other scholars and virtuous people doing this, realize that that lifestyle requires the development of habit over many years, and one should not try something so drastic in an overnight-cold-turkey sort of way.

Finally, you may find that you're not perfect.  That's perfectly ok, so long as you have a plan to make up for mistakes.  For example, let's say you only completed 10 pages of Qur'an on Monday.  You're officially 10 pages behind in Qur'an reading now, so what will you do?  Adding extra pages during the weekdays might be too much, but can you split the difference and make it up on the weekend?  For those things that can be made up, try to find a way to make them up later in a way that's doable for you.

2. Motivational Spiritual Talks

It's truly tragic we debate whether music is halal or not, focusing and (I would say) wasting all our energy on academically discussing the reasons for or against the use of instruments when we all agree that anything with licentious lyrics should be prohibited, full-stop.  Contemporary pop music is nothing more than an automated shaytaan whispering in your ears in full HD, calling you to sex (i.e. the degradation and objectification of women mostly), narcissism, greed, disrespect, and overall heedlessness of the next world in favor of an excessive focus on this one.  And to cement those ideas positively in your head, it's accompanied with music designed to elicit a positive chemical response in order to hard wire it's acceptance into your brain.

During this month, let's drop the music and singing in favor of Islamic talks.  Get your favorite speaker on your mp3 player and where ever you would have normally been listening to music (or if you don't listen, where there is nothing that consumes your mental bandwidth while working), listen to a good set of talks about Ramadan.  Commit to do it daily.  Automate virtue and spirituality and the call to better adab, manners, living, ethics, and worship in HD in your ears.

Some times to do this would include when you're doing chores at home, commuting to work, or some other mundane task.  Get a smart phone, a car stereo that connects to devices via bluetooth, and stream your favorite speaker from youtube to your car stereo.  Put some headphones on while you're grocery shopping.  Find a way to fill your head with virtue and keep virtuous company.  Post-Ramadan start listening to audiobooks and become a better read, more intelligent individual.

3. Support Groups

One method that is known to keep people on track with difficult goals is being part of a support group.  Find yourself a group of close friends who want to achieve big things during Ramadan, and form a group – a mailing list, a discussion forum, a facebook group, a twitter list, whatever technology or means you prefer, but keep a group on hand where you can talk about your goals and share your progress.  It will motivate others as well as keep you motivated to stay on track.  There may be some fear that one can feel their intention getting compromised by sharing progress, but this something you have to fight.  When you feel you may be falling into riyaa, renew your intention and fight that feeling as you keep motivating others while being motivated by them.

What Are Your Techniques?

In the comments below, share with everyone your techniques for staying motivated and keeping on track during Ramadan =)

9 Responses

  1. M

    Salam, JazakAllah Khair for sharing this. Keeping a calender/planner really helps in keeping track of one’s goal. It’s like a self-evaluation tool. I came across the “Daily Taskinator” chart from Productive Muslim, and made a personalised version of it last Ramadan. It’s really handy. I’ve been using it since then for every month.

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  2. Uzair

    Assalam Alaykum.
    Jazak’Allah for the amazing series!

    Wonderful post brother. May I suggest DayScore.net for keeping track of your habits during Ramadan?
    It’s pretty simple and straightforward since you don’t need a separate app. Just type in the habits and bookmark the page. Open it daily while checking email and stuff.

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  3. M.S.

    As salaamu aleykum.

    MashaAllah, good suggestions and tools brother Siraaj. May Allah reward you.

    Ok, so I think, I had a good Ramadan last year, Allah knows best. And I would like to share some things I had incorporated into my routine.

    1. Attending all congregation prayers at the Masjid. I tried to attend as many prayers as I could during the work-week, and I made it a habit to pray all the prayers at the Masjid during the weekends. I found out when I did this frequently, it got easier for me to make more dhikr and read a few extra pages of Quran every day.

    2. Giving regular Sadaqah every day. I allocated a budget before Ramadan started, and gave charity in both money and food every single day. Sometimes I would donate to a charity online, other days I would give out a few dollars here and there in whatever Masjid or area around town I found myself in. In terms of food, I would distribute food consistently each day. People would ask me how I could give every day and frankly speaking, once I started it, it became super easy, I never got tired, and it never drained my wallet. I miss it so much, I can’t wait for this year’s Ramadan already.

    3. Have a unique dua list ready to go. (Sensei…oops, I meant Shaykh Muhammad Al-Shareef, may Allah reward him, advocates having a good dua list ready. I used this for both Ramadan and during Hajj. It is awesome.) InshaAllah, write down your dua list today and check it twice. Start practicing those duas every day from now, and as Ramadan gets closer, it becomes easy for you. Then when Ramadan arrives, say those duas after the Adhan, after making dhikr after the Salat, before breaking your fast at Iftar time and even before you go to sleep. InshaAllah, Allah will answer something for you on that dua list.

    4. Every free moment I could find, I worked in some time to recite Quran. During the work week, I would consistently recite Quran after Fajr prayers. The Quran after Fajr, was the key to having a good recitation day. After work, after Asr prayers or before Iftar time came in, I would recite more, to see if I could complete a Juz or even more. At work, I would put on my head phones and listen to Quran, and/or recite along as much as I could. On the weekends, cutting out internet and TV from my time increased my efficiency, it allowed me to recite two, sometimes three Juz in one sitting. AlhamdulilAllah, with the slight changes in habit, I found out that I was able to finish reciting the complete Quran from cover-to-cover many times. May Allah guide me, and all of us to the sweetness of the Quran in this coming blessed month.

    5. Postponing all Iftar dinner invitations to Eid day and afterwards. Sad to say this, but I did turn down a majority of the Iftar-dinner invitations to people’s houses during last Ramadan. I know it is hard for some people to refuse a good meal (including myself), or invitations from important people and/or respected relatives, however try your best to keeping it within 3 to 5 outside Ifar dinner plans. I suggest you make a schedule, mark an ‘X’ on the free nights, and lock it in. (I would suggest picking an even-night on Saturdays or Sundays as one of your wild-card nights for accepting invitations. Although every day & night is potentially very rewarding, you want to have a game plan and avoid being spontaneous in Ramadan. Don’t be afraid to say no, for the sake of Allah.) Once all available space is booked in your schedule, take no more appointments until Eid day inshaAllah. In my case, if a brother kept insisting on inviting me, I would say ‘Sorry brother, I love you for the sake of Allah but I have made plans already”. I learnt to repeat that line over and over again with a big smile. I found out many Iftar dinner parties outside my zip code or held outside my local Masjid, disrupted my chances of catching the Maghrib, Isha and Taraweeh prayers in congregation. Also, most Iftar dinner parties led to over eating on my part. Most of the time the host (i.e., the host’s wife) almost always overcooked, the portions were enormous, and as a guest who didn’t want to disappoint, I don’t know how but I turn into a competitive eater. So minimizing or completely curtailing these Iftar dinner smorgasbords did wonders to my Ramadan activities, and my waistline.

    6. This last point is an extension of the previous – be friendly and nice to people in Ramadan, always seek refuge in Allah from Shaytan, overlook people’s errors even if they hurt you, and try to focus on oneself. So what I am really saying is, be a little selfish in a good way. Focus on yourself and don’t lose sight of the blessings you, as an individual, can earn in this month. Yes, many things practiced in Islam fall into a group activities, group activities have people with personalities & attitudes that will most likely clash with yours. I am not advocating avoiding people but I am suggesting making a few intelligent choices, picking one or two activities with people that will really benefit you, and don’t just buy into anyone’s idea of a ‘super-awesome Ramadan Halaqah Dawah Project Family Gathering’ mash up. AlhamdulilAllah, last Ramadan there were many activities in our local masjid that I would have loved to participate in, but frankly, I declined many of them because I knew there was potential for me to lose focus or burn-out. In one incident, last Ramadan, while I was sitting in the masjid reciting Quran, a brother at our Masjid stood up and made an announcement about a new Halaqah that was starting that same day in the Masjid, and would continue every day after Asr prayer in the month of Ramadan. He was encouraging people to participate, and he actually walked over to me, and invited me to attend. I greeted him, gently declined and he somehow got pissed at me. He insisted it was beneficial knowledge and it is a blessed month to be learning, and I told the brother, I couldn’t and that I wanted to focus on some other tasks. The brother walked away disappointed. Working 40+ hours a week did not leave me with a lot of energy, and I choose to focus on the goals I set for myself like continuously reciting the Quran, upping my GPA average on congregational prayer attendance, and maximizing the reach of my charity in my local community. I think I accomplished those tasks and I ask Allah to accept them of me. But what I didn’t do is attend Tafsir classes, participate in dawah projects and/or take part in distributing the Zakat ul-Fitr charity. I know there were other brothers who took advantage of those activities and I ask Allah to reward them and bless them for it.

    May Allah accept of us all and reward us with Jannatul Firdaus al-‘Alaa.

    Wa salaamu aleykum

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  4. Abdul-Qadir

    Assalamualiakum,

    What I do every year for the past several years is have a create a few goals, and try to meet those few only. If i try to do too much i feel let down and quit.

    1. Dua list for use the entire month especially during the last ten nights.
    2. Quran read/memorize
    3. Chosen Islamic book to read (Dua: weapon of the believer, short tafseer, Aqeedah book, etc.)
    4. Chosen Non-fiction book (marriage, money habits, business, etc.)
    5. 10 hadith from Riyad-as-Saliheen daily.

    I then look at the day and see where i can fit it in. The hadith usualyl happen in the morning, the quran during lunch, the rest after work.

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  5. Said Hasan

    JazakAllah khayr for sharing this great article. After reading beneficial Ramadan posts at muslimmatters.org, productivemuslim.com, onislam.net, islamqa.com and youthlyhub.com, I aim to have a life-changing amazing Ramadan in sha Allah.

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  6. Shahzad Mustafa

    JazakumAllahu khairan for this series. Lots of great ideas on help us organize our Ramadan. What needs to be said loud and clear, is that once a Muslim’s heart begins to yearn for his/her Lord, truly believing in the reality of the Akhirah, and feeling the urge to maximize his/her time in this world to do good deeds, then all these tools/technique become contextualized. It’s gotta be an “inside out” approach. One of the challenges of spirituality in our community is people get overwhelmed with the “externalities” of Islam (praying, fasting, going to the masjid, jumu’ah, hijab, beard, etc.) while the hearts and minds are not growing. Ramadan in particular can be very “religiously hectic” with the need to pray all that taraweeh, finish reading the Quran, etc. But it’s that internal journey that is ultimately to be sought for, and then the actions will easily follow.

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    • M.S.

      As salaamu aleykum

      I support Shahzad’s position on the need to raise the spiritually level of one’s heart in a blessed month like Ramadan. And throughout the year. And I have to agree we have to challenge ourselves to think deeper, to ask intelligent questions about where we stand in our faith and we need to start looking from the inside-out.

      However, if I am reading the post correctly, and I could be misunderstanding what was written, it seems like Shahzad is saying we need to relegate some recommended actions because they are “externalities of Islam” that hinder a community from achieving a higher spiritual threshold. Maybe this is not what you meant but I have to say this line of thinking sounds flawed, and it is weird to imply that the lack of spirituality in people in a community, is a result of burn-out from performing some obligatory actions (or the supererogatory actions). I hate to use the cliché, correlation does not imply causation, but it really applies here. Maybe we need to dissuade people in the community from getting involved in other things that could be degrading them spiritually, for example, discouraging sins, or consumption of impure earnings & staying away from interest, or discouraging them from excessively loving materialism & glamour, and/or warning them about not getting involved in actions of bid’ah which can blemish their thinking and their understanding of Islam. These are just some of the few bad apples I can think of that could really undermine people’s spirituality and weaken their connection to their Creation. As far as the praying of Taraweeh and/or reciting the Quran goes, these are recommended actions and considered some of the best deeds, and it is okay to accept that not everyone is going to be at the same performance level in reading, reciting or attending the prayers. Some people will struggle a bit in Ramadan, others may find a comfortable pace, and yet others will move like well-oiled machines. Some people may even become more generous in Ramadan by them just witnessing other people giving generously. Everyone will agree, this is a good step in the right direction. (Yes, if someone did put in major effort throughout the year in learning Arabic the language of the Quran, for sure, their level of Khusoo’ and comprehension of the recited Quran will be better during Taraweeh prayers in Ramadan. But that doesn’t mean we have to discount the Taraweeh altogether.) We need to encourage people to do more of these actions in Ramadan and after Ramadan, and not discourage them. From what I understand, the intent of the recommended actions done with sincerity, is to try to raise one’s rank in front of Allah and have hope that Allah accepts that extra effort. And we all know there are many ranks for the sincere believers to strive towards, may Allah make us amongst the best. However, to insinuate that a recommended action like Taraweeh prayers takes away from raising the spirituality of practicing Muslims or keeps them away from doing good deeds, is a stretch. Yes there is a problem with lack of spirituality or low spirituality in many of us, no one disagrees, but let’s not use the mentality of the cynical six-phases of a big project that said “Search for the Guilty, Punish the innocence”. This would not work well.

      May Allah forgive me and all of us, may He accept our deeds, and help us improve ourselves and the condition of His creation and the believers.

      Wa salaamu aleykum

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    • Saliha

      Shahzad, I see where you’re coming from: we definitely need to focus on spirituality and our hearts. That being said, I agree with M.S. To paraphrase a hadith, Prophet (SAW) said, “None of you truly believe until your desires are in line with what Allah (SWT) commands.” So a major part of the inner journey is doing what we need to do like salah, beard, etc. The goal would be for the feeling of these acts of worship being a burden or overwhelming transforming into positive feelings like enjoyment and relaxation. So, it would have to be the other way around: the more obligatory and nonobligatory stuff we do and the more we’re actually enjoying it, the better and the more sincere our inner journey would be. To use a mundane example, you wouldn’t tell a person that has heart disease to just stop working out and dieting because they find it overwhelming would you? You would instead tell them, “Ok, so incorporate a little of both each time until you’re no longer aware of the fact that you’re eating healthy because it’s so normal for you, and until working out becomes a routine that you actually love.” That would be the ideal, but even if we can’t get to this ideal, we can still keep working at it, right?

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