By: Nur Fadhilah Wahid
Are you having a hard time sticking to your new year resolutions? Perhaps you’ve been frustrated and disappointed over and over again seeing your grand plans of change fall apart?
Don’t worry, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.
Let’s try again. This time, with the proper understanding and knowledge of habit-making.
Why I Got Interested in Habits
I remember coming out of the conference hall, all excited and motivated to be a better Muslimah. Listening to humbling reminders from an all-star shuyukh lineup and having conversations with numerous inspiring Muslimahs (or Muslims, if you’re a brother) tends to have that impact on people, especially me.
I went home and drew up a master plan of what my days would look like:
Tahajjud at 4 A.M., followed by an hour of the Qur’an, followed by some revisions for school before praying Fajr. Then I would burn the track before getting ready for school. I would then be on time for all my classes, come home, spend another hour with the Qur’an and listen to more lectures online. In between, I would pray all my prayers on time, including all the sunnah prayers, both before and after.
Things went great on the first day. I was roaring with enthusiasm. By the third day I was exhausted, but I pushed myself. By the fifth day, I had significantly reduced my sunnah prayers and my running shoes stood dejected by the door. By the seventh, I had suffered a total burnout.
I got depressed, demotivated and soon returned to my old ways. The cycle then repeats when a new conference comes into town. Instead of changing small habits over time, I tried to change my whole being in one shot.
And I know many of us are stuck in the same cycle too. A great tool that you can use to keep track of your progress achieved toward building (or destroying) a habit is ProductiveMuslim’s Habitator.
“In order for us to realize our God-given potential within our lifetimes, we must break the cycles of stagnation that prevent us from doing so by abandoning methods that have proven ineffective in fulfilling our responsibilities as people committed to Islam. We can accomplish this only by changing our current condition this requires courage, commitment and above all, critical introspection.” Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (Agenda to Change our Condition)
The Heart, The Brain, and Habits
In my quest to learn more about habits and how we can change them, I decided to look at both Islamic and Western literature to compare them and, In sha Allah, get an understanding from both perspectives. Surprisingly,many of the actions recommended and concepts spoken about in both literatures are somewhat the same. The crucial differentiating factor, however, is that Western literature tends to focus on the brain as the main cause of actions and habits, while Islamic literature brings them back to the heart.
In this two-part series, we will explore how we can inculcate better habits in our lives. The first part will explore habit-making through purifying the heart, while the second part of the series will touch on habit-making from the perspective of cognitive science.
At the end of each part, I will share some small actionable steps that we can take to better ourselves, one habit at a time, In sha Allah!
Habits and the Heart
Prophet Muhammad said: “Truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be whole, all the body is whole and which, if it be diseased, all of it is diseased. Truly it is the heart.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
As Muslims, we should be clear that in Islamic thought, the center of consciousness and conscience is actually the heart and not the brain as Western science tells us. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said in recent times scientists have discovered that there are more than 40,000 neurons in the heart that communicate with the brain, meaning that not only does the brain send messages to the heart, but the heart does the same to the brain as well.
In a study conducted in the 1970s, for instance, two physiologists discovered that when the brain sent messages to the heart, “the heart did not automatically obey the messages. Sometimes the heart sped up, while other times it slowed down, indicating that the heart itself has its own type of intelligence”. 
That said, the study of the brain is a relatively new science, while our knowledge of the heart and soul will always be limited as the Qur’an has mentioned:
“And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, “The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.” [Qur’an: Chapter 17, Verse 85].
In a hadith found in the book “Purification of the Heart” by Imam Al-Mawlud, it is written that no one fully believes until his desires [and thus, actions] are in accordance with what the Prophet had brought [Imam Nawawi, #41]. Due to this, Imam al-Mawlud explained that there is thus no salvation “like the heart’s salvation, given that all the limbs [and organs] respond to its desires”.
The basic rule then, according to Imam al-Mawlud, is to ask Allah for assistance, and then work to consistently purify the state of our hearts.
There are three kinds of realizations we need to have before we take the steps to make changes in our lives. The first is knowing the state of our heart, the second is having the right intentions towards change, while the third is understanding the nature of change.
Realization 1: Knowing Our State
The first thing to realize in trying to take on good habits or remove bad ones is the state of our heart — the source of all actions. Only through reflection will we be able to know ourselves and who we really are, and this self-awareness is the basis of achieving good.
Reflection, with the knowledge that it is impossible to attain a pure heart, would then lead to shame and humility before Allah , causing us to implore Him to change our states. And truly, no power nor change happens except by the will of Allah .
Suggested action points:
- Look deep within yourself.
- Keep a daily journal.
- Write down all the things you do and feel; the conversations in your heart and mind.
- Take note of your weaknesses, your strengths, what makes you tick and what drives you.
- Learn to see yourself for who you really are
- Take note of the state of your heart.
Realization 2: Having the Right Intentions for Change
The second realization that we need to have is to understand that whatever change we intend to undertake should stem from the need to worship Allah better. Our raw intentions should root not from our ego, desires and wants, but from the pinnacle of servanthood to Him who has created us.
When we make the intentions to be a better parent, child, or student, etc., it makes it easy for us to give up and tell ourselves, “It’s okay, better luck next year.” Also, the reason of being better here is the “I” of the self, instead of the “You” of Allah .
However, when we take our intentions a step further and pin our intentions to the need to serve Allah out of our immense love to Him and the Prophet , then our intention for change is sincerely for Him and nothing else.
Suggested action points:
- Check your intentions: Always do things for the sake of Allah . When we do things for Allah , we do things with ihsaan, with love and perfection; we don’t tell ourselves “better luck next year”. When we do things for Allah, we focus on the “You” and not the “I”.
- Shift your inner dialogue to one which is intent on giving instead of receiving, for in the giving is barakah and aid from Allah .
Realization 3: Understanding the Nature of Change
The third realization is to understand that the nature of mankind in adopting changes is through gradual changes, and not through an extreme makeover.
Although there are instances of people changing drastically literally overnight (for Allah is capable of doing anything He wishes), the nature of change generally is through gradual adoption of new habits.
When the ruling that alcohol is forbidden was revealed, it did not come down in a hard and fast overnight commandment from Allah . Instead, He sent down three gradual revelations that would ease the ruling gradually into the lives of Muslims:
- First revelation: “They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit”…” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 219].
- Second revelation: “O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated…” [Qur’an: Chapter 4, Verse 43].
- Third revelation: “O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allah ], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful” [Qur’an: Chapter 5, Verse 90].
We should do the same when we plan to overhaul our habits. Start small and gradually take further steps to make the change.
Suggested action points:
Break down the habit you are intending to adopt into smaller steps and start tackling the easiest of the steps first. For example:
- To make writing a daily habit, start by aiming to write freely for five minutes every morning. Then slowly increase the time to ten, then to fifteen, until you reach your daily target.
- To make running a daily habit, start by just putting on your running shoes and going for a 10-minute walk. Over time, gradually increase your speed and/or distance, until running daily becomes second nature to you.
Three Actions that Purify the Heart
With these realizations, we then need to work on purifying our heart and increasing our imaan, for a sound heart leads to sound limbs and actions. When the heart is good, everything else will follow, and habit-changing comes naturally, bi’iznillah.
To increase our imaan, the advice given by Habib Ali Shaykh, the discipline master of the school of Dar al-Mustafa in Yemen, is to do three things:
Read the Qur’an, make salawat upon the Prophet and recite the shahadah.
Doing these actions in itself means the inculcation of new habits. To make things easier, refer to the three realizations we spoke about earlier:
- The state of our heart and self
- The right intentions to make
- The nature of change
Suggested action points:
- First, when you know the state of your heart and the state of yourself, then you know what you need to make it easier to read the Qur’an, make more salawat and recite the shahadah. For me, I realize that it is hard for me to read the Qur’an and make salawat extensively after each prayer due to my tight schedule, and so I dedicate each morning after Fajr prayers solely for these recitations. And when I know my heart is getting low on imaan, I increase my recitations, salawat and shahadah to fight against the disease.
Everyone’s needs and abilities differ according to each person’s state. Make strategies appropriate to your own.
- Second, when you have the right intentions, know with firm belief that Allah will make it easier for you to start inculcating that new habit.
“… Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves…” [Qur’an: Chapter 13, Verse 11].
- Make lots of dua for Allah to make change easier for you. Ask Him to give you the knowledge and understanding that you need, the strength, determination and patience to carry out what you intend, and the remembrance that all changes come from Him and are made for Him.
- Third, when you understand the nature of change, you know that you have to start small, ‘small’ being that which is defined by your own abilities. If you have not been reading the Qur’an your whole life, start by reading half a page of the Qur’an each day. If that’s too hard, start with three verses. Then when you get better and more eloquent in your recitation, increase it to one page, and so on and so forth. The key here is to be consistent, and then to increase your actions gradually.
The Prophet was asked, “What deeds are loved most by Allah?” He said, “The most regular constant deeds even though they may be few.” [Bukhari]
- Lastly, to aid your journey in cleansing your heart, read the book “Purification of the Heart”, a translation and commentary of Imam Al-Mawlud’s “Mat-harat al-Qulub.” Like the doctor giving medicine to the patient, the book diagnoses specific ailments of the spiritual heart, and then suggests the steps to take to cure that ailment. Feeling envious of someone? Turn to page 27. Having negative thoughts? Turn to page 81. Harbouring obliviousness to blessings? Page 123 will tell you what you need to do.
Now I began this article by first addressing the heart, for in the heart sit our intentions.
Prophet said: “Deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention…” [Bukhari & Muslim].
If we make changes or adopt new habits to be a better this or a better that, chances are we will get to be a better this or a better that. However, if we make changes or adopt new habits to get closer to Allah , then In sha Allah we will get closer Allah .
This should be what we remember first and foremost when we think about habit-making.
“Actions are lifeless forms, but the presence of inner reality of sincerity within them is what endows them with life-giving Spirit.” – Ibn Ataillah, The Book of Wisdom
Having explained how in the Islamic worldview the success of forming a new habit depends on the state of the heart. By keeping the heart clean from vices and full of remembrance of Allah , it is in man’s nature to change his actions for the better.
I will explain habit formation from the perspective of Western science and how we can utilize this knowledge to help us build our habits.
The Role of Basal Ganglia
In the 1990s, several researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences began looking into a part of the brain close to where it meets the spinal column: the basal ganglia. They made initial observations that animals with injured basal ganglia tended to have problems with tasks such as learning how to run through mazes, while they had no problem doing so previously.
They then launched a series of lab experiments and concluded that the basal ganglia was “central to recalling patterns and acting on them,”  which meant that while the rest of the brain goes to sleep after enough repetitions of an act, the basal ganglia stores them as habits and takes over the process.
The hijacking done by the basal ganglia is the reason why we sometimes find ourselves driving straight home when we actually wanted to make a detour to the store. It is also why we find ourselves halfway through prayer before realizing that we did not actually register what we were doing; the basal ganglia has automated the process!
The Three-Step Loop
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling book “The Power of Habit”, the automation of the process within our brains occurs in a three-step loop:
Step 1: Cue — a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and informs it of what to do next.
Step 2: Routine — the behavior itself, which can be physical, mental, or emotional.
Step 3: Reward — helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.
Overtime, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The brain latches on to a cue and associates it with a corresponding behavior and reward. The cue and reward then become intertwined until the basal ganglia relate them together, creating a powerful sense of anticipation.
Eventually, a habit is born.
The 3-step loop might seem too simplistic to some, but the truth is that the knowledge of the loop is so powerful that huge corporations actually implement it when shaping their products to make us (consumers) addicted to using them.
Nir Eyal, in his book “Hooked”, explains how product makers, through consciously deciding triggers for their users (cue), actions that they want the users to take (routine), and the variable reward that the users will receive (reward), create a product that users cannot help but return to time and again. And we wonder why we are so addicted to the likes of Facebook and Instagram!
So the question is, how can we use the 3-step loop to help us build new habits?
Tip 1: Choose Unavoidable Cues
Instead of creating a fresh cue to trigger your new behavior, try to pinpoint a current habit you already have and make that a trigger to start a new habit.
In practical terms: When I wanted to start on a new set of adhkar to recite every morning, I chose my already existing behavior of reading the Qur’an after Fajr as the cue for reading the adhkar. This way, overtime, it becomes natural for me to just continue my extended dhikr after reciting the Qur’an; I don’t need to rely on additional internal motivation because my cue already exists.
Tip 2: Make the Cues Obvious
To make habit-building even easier, set up your environment in such a way that your cues are highly visible and obvious.
In practical terms: Going back to my new dhikr habit example, how I reduce even more resistance is by placing the phone application I use to store my dhikr right next to my Qur’an application. This way, the moment I close my Qur’an application, the first thing that I see is the dhikr application, my cue to open it and start reading.
Tip 3: Start With the Smallest Behavior (Routine)
One of the biggest hindrances to forming new habits is when our mind starts thinking about the huge effort that we need to exert to complete that specific behaviour. For example, the dhikr recitation habit that I am in the process of building would require at least 30 minutes of my time.
The truth is, sometimes just thinking about having to recite additional adhkar for 30 minutes saps the energy out of me and I start finding excuses to put off building the habit.
In practical terms: Instead of thinking about the entire length of the dhikr, I focus on just completing the first part of the dhikr that would take me approximately 5 minutes. And because of the Zeigarnik Effect (which explains that it is in our human nature to finish what we start), my brain then forces me to continue turning the page until I get to the end. Voilà, 30 minutes down, Alhamdulillah!
Tip 4: Identify A Reward
The fourth tip is to identify a reward for yourself upon completion of your new habit. By doing this, according to Duhigg, you are helping your brain figure out if it is worthwhile to take note of the cue and the expected action to take.
In practical terms: In my dhikr habit example, I identified not one, but two rewards to keep me going. The first reward is the feeling of gratitude for the peaceful state of heart that He promises those who spend time in His remembrance (Qur’an: Chapter 13, Verse 28). The second reward is being able to check off that task in my Habits Tracking application.
By identifying these rewards, I am subconsciously making it easier for my brain to remember that putting the extra effort to inculcate that specific habit will “pay off” in the end.
Bonus Tip 5: Build On Your Keystone Habits First
Duhigg defines a keystone habit as “a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in order”. For some people, it might be exercising, and for others, it might be journalling.
As for us Muslims, the first keystone habit we should work on (if we have yet to do so) is our fardh prayers. Prophet Muhammad reminded us numerous times to guard our prayers, and it is something that we should all work above all else.
Prayer not only teaches us to be disciplined in our actions and to manage our time properly, but more importantly, prayer is a connection between us and our Creator. It also washes away our sins and cleanses our heart, thus making building good habits easier.
A Final Note
To conclude this article, I’d just like to share that I truly understand that building new habits can be hard. I particularly am still struggling to sustain my newly formed dhikr habit to last longer than 20 days; there would always be something (an excuse really) interrupting my flow.
Once, frustrated at my failures to remain constant with my new habits, I complained to Shaykh Yahya Rhodus of my shortcomings and shared how hard I felt it was to change. He flashed a kind smile and said:
“Just pick yourself up, wipe the dust off and move forward. Shaytaan will always place doubt in your hearts, telling you to lose hope and go back to your old ways, especially when you are down. Just ignore him, pick yourself up and keep moving forward (shows action of wiping dust off hands). Don’t dwell. Pick yourself up, and keep moving forward.“
May Allah purify our hearts and beautify our actions, and may He make it easy for us to follow in the footsteps of the most beloved of His creations, Sayyidina Mustafa Rasulillah . Ameen!
The cue-routine-reward process can only be beneficial if you actually apply it. So, now that you know all about it, I’d like you to think of a habit you’ve been struggling to develop, apply the 3-step loop to it, and share the result below!
 Duhigg, Charles. “The Power of Habit” (e-book). Chapter 1, Part 2.
About the Author:
Nur Fadhilah Wahid is a seeker of knowledge, a Muslimah in progress, and an aspiring writer. She writes on her own site www.fadhilahwahid.com and other online publications. Subscribe to her personal letters for writings not published anywhere, as well as for updates on projects she’s working on. She believes in the magic that can happen when like-minded individuals come together, biiznillah!