Time Management From The Sunnah

This article features the Prophet’s ﷺ advice on how to get the most from your time.

Time management is such an important topic in today’s fast-paced, hustle and bustle world. There just never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done, so find hundreds of books and blog posts on the subject, not to mention the hundreds of strategies to help people manage their time better, like the famous GTD methodology for example.

This is why I decided to share my Fara’id (Islamic inheritance law) teacher’s advice from my days studying Islamic Law at Medina University in KSA. The bachelors degree program at Medina University is no joke; we study on average 8 subjects a term and 25 hours a week for 4 years, and a lot of students also try to take advantage of the many classes held every evening in the Prophet’s Masjid. So as you can imagine a lot of the students would complain about the work load. My teacher had a very simple piece of advice that he had derived from a hadith of the Prophet ﷺ.

It is reported in both Bukhari and Muslim that Fatimah (may Allah be pleased with her) complained to Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) about her heavy workload and told her that she wanted to get a maid to help her around the house. Aishah later informed the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ about his daughter’s struggles, so he went to visit her at her home. When he arrived he found that Fatimah and her husband Ali (may Allah be pleased with them both) had already retired to bed. They began to get up to show their respect, but he told them not to worry and he sat with them on their bed. He ﷺ said, “May I direct you to something better than what you have asked for? When you go to bed say ‘Allah akbar’ (God is great) thirty four times, ‘subhan Allah’ (glory to God) thirty three times, and ‘al-hamdu lillah’ (praise be to God) thirty three times, and that will be better for you than a maid.”

The take away that my teacher wanted us to learn was that the first step to managing one’s time, before seeking to organize it with a clever method or productivity app (or in our case pleading with the teacher not to give us another assignment), is first to seek Allah’s blessings for the time available using this simple act of remembrance, so that an hour may seem like so much more.

I found this piece of advice invaluable over the years for managing my long list of tasks at work and at home. I still use todo lists, calendars, productivity apps, etc, but first I always try to remember to perform this nightly ritual, because without the help and blessings from our Lord all of these things are inconsequential.

We Are the Sum of Our Habits

Our infrequent acts of good or bad do not define us. Rather we are what we do day-in day-out. Therefore, to be the best men we can be we must weed out the bad habits and cultivate the good.

Our character and our success in this life and the next depends largely on our habits: the things we do consistently day-in and day-out. It is not our random acts that define us; it is the small daily acts that make us who we are. For example, a generous person isn’t the one who one day decides to give $1000 to charity after a lifetime of miserliness. The generous person is the one who consistently gives a dollar a day. It is like the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ:

“Adhere to truth, for truth leads to good deeds and good deeds lead to Paradise, and if a man continues to speak the truth he will be recorded as honest before Allah. Beware of lying, for lying leads to wickedness and wickedness leads to the Hellfire, and if a man continues to lie he will be recorded as a liar before Allah.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

In other words, a person is considered honest or a liar if they consistently tell the truth or lie. Telling a lie once doesn’t make you a liar, even if it is a huge lie, but if you habitually lie, then this does make you a liar, even if they are only little “white” lies.

Another benefit we can derive from this hadith is that habits can be either positive or negative, so it is important to develop good habits and to avoid bad habits. In this next hadith the Prophet ﷺ describes how a bad habit develops over time:

“Indeed, when the slave (of Allah) commits a sin, a black spot appears on his heart. When he refrains from it, seeks forgiveness and repents, his heart is cleansed. But if he returns, it increases until it covers his entire heart. And that is the “stain” that Allah mentions: ‘Rather, their hearts have been stained by (the evil) they used to commit!’ (83:14)” (At-Tirmidhi)

Once a habit is formed it can be difficult to get rid of, and this is true of both good and bad habits as this second narration shows:

“…the result is that there will become two types of hearts: one white like a white stone which will not be harmed by any turmoil or temptation, so long as the heavens and the earth endure; and the other black and dust-coloured like a broken vessel, not recognizing what is good or rejecting what is abominable, only following its desires.” (Muslim)

Therefore, the goal for every Muslim should be to develop good habits and remove bad habits, as this is the only route to success in this life and the next.

So how are habits formed? As the ahadith above suggest, habits are formed by repetition of an act (e.g. sins) and a perceived reward from that act (e.g. fulfillment of abase desires). For example, a person has a habit of smoking when they are stressed and that helps them to relax. Over time this becomes a habit.

Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) breaks the habit into 3 parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. He calls this the “habit loop”. In the smoking example, the cue is the stress, the routine is the smoking, and the reward is the feeling of relaxation. Knowing your habit loop can help to change the habit. Charles Duhigg lays out a number of steps to work out the habit loop and to change the habit:

Step 1: Identify the cue or trigger

When you feel the urge for your habit note down the time, the place, if anyone else is around, what you were just doing, and what emotion you are feeling at the time. Keep a diary of these 5 things, the one that stays the same every time is the cue.

Step 2: Identify the reward and the desire

The next step is to identify what craving is being satisfied by this habit. This is done by substituting the habit for other things to see if the craving is satisfied. For example, if you have a habit of drinking soda, the craving could be because you are thirsty, tired, or even bored. So to work out what the craving is you substitute your soda for water, or a coffee, or anything else that could possibly satisfy the craving, if the craving is gone after that then you know that that satisfies the craving. For example, instead of soda you drink some water. That didn’t take away the craving, so next time you take a walk. That did the trick so now you know that exercise also satisfies your craving.

Step 3: Create a new routine

Now that you have identified the cue and the reward you can create a new routine. To do this Charles Duhigg recommends you write down a plan, such as:

When           cue         , I will           routine         , because it provides me with        reward     .

Where it says “cue” you write the trigger that you identified in step 1. Where it says “routine” you write an activity that satisfies your craving. Where it says “reward” you write the craving that you identified in step 2.

For example, I have a bad habit of smoking at work. I did the first two steps and found that I always take a cigarette break whenever I start to get bored with my work and i find that if I take a coffee break with a colleague it satisfies the same craving as the cigarette break, so i make this new plan:

When I get bored at work, I will take a coffee break with a colleague, because it provides me with break from work and some time to socialize.

I write this on a post-it note and stick it on my computer where it can act as a reminder. After doing this for a week or two it should become a habit.

The habit loop can also be used to build good habits. We still use the cue-routine-reward loop, but in this case we will choose an action that we do every day that can act as our cue. For example, we choose as our cue waking up in the morning, or brushing our teeth, or breakfast, etc. The cue that we choose will become our reminder to perform the habit.

It is important to remember that the goal is consistency not quantity. In fact you want to start off with small actions so it is so easy you have no excuse to not do it. The Prophet ﷺ said:

“Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few.” (Ibn Majah)

Finally, there should be a reward for completing the action, so remember to pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for getting it done. Also you should know why you are doing the action and remind yourself of that. For example, if your new habit is to exercise, then remind yourself of your reason for exercising, i.e. to lose weight, get fit, etc. It is important to know the reason or goal for this habit you are building, because if you are just doing it because people are telling you to you will not experience much of a reward or sense of satisfaction. For example, people keep telling you that you should pray every day; instead of just taking their word for it read the many hadith on why you should be praying everyday and write them down as a motivational reminder.

When you have your habit loop write it down in a plan and put it somewhere that you will see it. The following are some examples of a habit loop plans:

Every day after lunch, I will read Quran, because Allah will give me 10 rewards for every letter that I read.

As soon as my adhan app tells me the prayer is in, I will pray, because the 5 daily prayers wipe away sins, and is the first thing that will be brought to account on the Day of Judgement.



Be The Muslim Man You Want To Be

In this article I discuss how damaging procrastination can be for the Muslim man and how to beat it.

Procrastination: sacrificing long-term goals for immediate gratification.

Procrastination is without a doubt one of the most effective tools in the Shaytan’s arsenal. The whole premise of Islam is to postpone immediate gratification in the Dunya for the long-term pleasures of the Hereafter. So the intelligent Muslim man gives up the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, fornication, and gambling for the greater, longer-lasting pleasures of Jannah. Allah, the Most High, said:

“As for those who fear standing before their Lord and forbid their desires then Jannah will be their refuge.” (An-Nazi’aat:40-41)

So it is the job of the Shaytan, as every man’s enemy, to make him procrastinate on performing the actions that will bring him success in this life and the Hereafter and to tempt him with the pleasures of this life.

Procrastination effects us in the most important aspect of our lives: our jobs, our health, our families, and our worship. We delay our projects till we are missing deadlines. We make plans to go the gym that never materialize. We delay visiting family members until they are taken from us. We delay our salat until we miss the time to pray. And so on and so on.

Imagine the things we could achieve, and the men we could be if we did everything we planned to do. If we stopped letting the Shaytan and our desires get the better of us.

So how do we overcome the temptations of the Shaitan and resist our own desires to become more productive Muslim men?

Step 1: Ask Allah for help

As Muslims we know that without Allah’s help we cannot achieve anything on our own. Everything we do is by Allah’s permission, therefore we must first ask Allah for His aid and to make our affairs easy. The Prophet ﷺ used to make this powerful dua seeking refuge from laziness and inability that every man should memorize:

اللهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الهَمِّ وَالحَزنِ وَالعَجزِ وَالكَسَلِ وَأَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الجُبنِ والبُخُلِ وَ أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِن غَلَبَةِ الدَينِ وَقَهرَةِ الرِجَال

“O Allah, I seek refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, inability and laziness, miserliness and cowardliness, the burden of debts and being over powered by men.” (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet ﷺ would also make a habit of asking Allah to make his actions beneficial and worthwhile every day after praying Fajr, he would say:

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أََسأَلُكَ عِلمًا نَافِعًا وَرِزقًا طَيِّبًا وَعَمَلًا مُتَقَبَّلًا

“O Allah, I ask you for knowledge that is beneficial, sustenance that is good, and actions that are accepted.”

Step 2: Begin the day right

Start your day by praying Fajr on time, preferably in the masjid if possible. How successful do you think your day is going to be waking up with the Shaytan’s pee in your ear! And whilst your at it don’t go back to sleep. The hours after Fajr are your best getting-things-done hours. These hours are full of barakah and before the time most people get up, so less distractions from kids, text messages, emails, etc.

Try it out if it isn’t already a part of your routine. You will be amazed at how much you can get done in this short period of time.

Step 3: Write it down

Write the things you want to get done in a to-do list or even better set a time and date for when you want to do it and record it in your calendar. Research shows that by simply writing the action down you can double the likelihood of you following through with that intention.

Step 4: Just get started

This may sound obvious, but the hardest part of any action is just getting started, so we have to make getting started as easy as possible. One way is to say “I’m just going to do this action for 5 minutes today.” For example, maybe you need to mow the lawn. It’s going to take at least half an hour, but you have been putting it off for days, so today you are just going to mow the lawn for 5 minutes. It’s easy to get started on a task that is only going to take 5 minutes. Once you get started most likely you will want to keep going until you are finished.

Or maybe you want to get into the habit of reading the Quran daily, so instead of setting a difficult goal you say I’m just going to read for 5 minutes. Even if you stop after 5 minutes it is still better than no minutes, and you can try and do 6 minutes tomorrow. After a few days it should become a habit and getting yourself to read Quran everyday should not be such a tough task.

Step 5: Pair things you hate doing with things you love

If you have a daily chore that you hate then pair it with something you love to do. For example, you hate doing the dishes, but you love to listen to a certain podcast, so whenever you do the dishes listen to your favorite podcast. You have an assignment to complete and you love doughnuts, so eat doughnuts whilst working on your assignment.

Feel free to let us know in the comments whether these steps were helpful for you, or if you have any other techniques you use to beat procrastination.

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