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.