When we talk about habits, our mind usually knows what is good but our body will react differently. Habits are actions that are, simply said, on autopilot, which are the things that we do without much thought. They are already in tune with our bodies; we just carry them out automatically.
It is important to recognise that bad habits come from our nafs (the baser-self) where we crave instant gratification. It can be eating unhealthily or something that is more serious like smoking. It can also be in the form of bad character traits, like constantly talking about people behind their backs.
We all have bad habits. Our nafs just wants the pleasure from doing them, even when our mind knows that they are bad. It is the desire to feel that pleasure in an instant, in contrast to everlasting pleasure like the pleasures of Paradise described in the Quran.
In a hadith, our Prophet s.a.w. said:
وَالْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي طَاعَةِ اللَّهِ
“...The mujahid (one who exerts effort for Allah) is the one who strives with himself regarding obedience to Allah...”
A form of obedience is to constantly strive to become better and attain the blessings of Allah s.w.t. In Surah Al-Baqarah verse 195, Allah s.w.t. mentions:
وَلَا تُلْقُوا بِأَيْدِيكُمْ إِلَى التَّهْلُكَةِ ۛ وَأَحْسِنُوا ۛ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
“And do not throw (yourselves) with your (own) hands into destruction (by refraining). And do good; indeed, Allah loves the doers of good.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:195)
Therefore, as Muslims, it is important for us to build good habits and break bad ones. Here are some tips to start:
Often, we will set big goals at the beginning with much determination to change. However, along the way, distractions and challenges may get us off track and these obstacles may hit us hard. At this point, the urge to quit may become stronger despite all the efforts we have put in. The next thing we know, we are back to square one.
There is nothing wrong with setting big goals but it is better to take practical and balanced steps. Islam is all about balance and building good habits is not an exception. In a hadith, the Prophet s.a.w. said:
صُمْ وَأَفْطِرْ، وَقُمْ وَنَمْ، فَإِنَّ لِجَسَدِكَ عَلَيْكَ حَقًّا
“...Observe the (voluntary) fast sometimes and also leave them (the fast) at other times; stand up for the prayer at night and also sleep at night. Your body has a right over you...”
Instead of ambitiously erasing the bad habit immediately, I would prefer to make small changes to make it practical and realistic.
For example, to start eating healthier, instead of eliminating all junk and processed food for every meal, start by eating one healthy meal or cutting down one portion of junk food. Or perhaps if you have not been doing charity, you can start by donating $1 a week.
When that action becomes habitual to our daily routine, we can then add more changes. This will make things easier!
In order to change, we need to identify the triggers and root causes of a particular action or behaviour. This is because habitual actions are done without much effort and we do it out of routine.
Being mindful, or Muraqabah in Arabic, is about being present or watchful in fulfilling our actions, knowing that we are constantly under Allah’s observance and care. Ibn Qayyim defined it as:
دَوَامُ مُلَاحَظَةِ الْمَقْصُودِ أَيْ دَوَامُ حُضُورِ الْقَلْبِ مَعَهُ
“Continuous awareness of the objective, meaning, the continuous presence of the heart with Him (Allah).”
A way to do it is by catching yourself before you engage in the habit. When intending to change a bad character trait such as anger, for example, we can try our best to calm ourselves before we start to go into a state of rage. The Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِذَا غَضِبَ أَحَدُكُمْ وَهُوَ قَائِمٌ فَلْيَجْلِسْ فَإِنْ ذَهَبَ عَنْهُ الْغَضَبُ وَإِلَّا فَلْيَضْطَجِعْ
“If one of you is angry while he is standing, let him sit down so his anger will leave him; otherwise, let him lie down.”
(Sunan Abi Daud)
Take a step back to ask why. Try to understand the reason for that anger. Is there a need that is unmet or ignored? I believe that it’s human to have emotions, even the negative ones, but how we react to that emotion is what matters.
Now that you have identified the root cause of those bad habits. Have a plan and then have a backup. Changing needs a lot of motivation and willpower and to be able to do so, we need to be intentional about it. The Prophet s.a.w. said:
إِنَّمَا الأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّةِ
“Every action depends on the intention behind it.”
As we slowly remove a bad habit, it will then leave a void. Therefore, without a plan to replace that void, we may easily fall back into our old bad habits. Being strategic can be in many forms, for example, writing down your goals, scheduling rewards for every progress you have achieved and journaling your progress.
I would recommend to surround yourself with like-minded people, ask for their advice and share your struggles and motivate each other.
Like how it is mentioned that bad habits are built over time, likewise the good ones follow the same order as well. Whatever you have set out to do, it will take time to be ingrained in your daily life as a routine. The key is to keep doing it day by day.
The Prophet s.a.w. was asked about deeds that are most beloved to Allah s.w.t. The Prophet s.a.w. said:
أَحَبُّ الأَعمَالِ إِلَى اللهِ أَدْومُها وَإِنْ قَلَّ
“The acts that are most pleasing to Allah are those which are done continuously, even if they amount to little.”
'Adwam' in this hadith means the most continuous. Therefore, choose a deed or action that is small and good, such as doing your prayers on time continuously. My advice is it will be difficult at first, but when this action is repeated, it will then become a good habit.
After exerting much effort, we may sometimes experience a day where we just don’t feel like it. It is okay to fall back sometimes. Occasional slips do not make us a failure. We are just human. What matters is we acknowledge that there are days we need to take a break and start again tomorrow.
Avoid having a rigid timeline. Some people may differ and I personally don’t agree with the 21, 30, 60 or any number of days rule. This may amount to unnecessary anxiety and will make you feel more like a failure when you don’t meet the goal and the tendency to give it up may be too overwhelming.
Remember, change is not a destination, it is a journey. Allah s.w.t. says:
إِنَّ اللّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ
“Indeed, Allah is with those who are patient.”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:153)
Changing needs a lot of patience. It definitely involves struggles and challenges. So why are we being too hard on ourselves when Allah says that he is with those who are patient?
In summary, change is a word ever so easy to understand but extremely difficult to practise. However, it is possible with the right intentions, continuous efforts and constant Dua to Allah s.w.t.