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.
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)
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!
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.