Today – 17th January – has been dubbed 'Blue Monday', the saddest day of the year. But if you're struggling with the 'winter blues' and neglected New Year's resolutions - we've got you!
We interviewed Safiyah Khan from Inspirited Minds (a Muslim mental health charity) to talk about setting goals as a Muslim while taking care of our mental wellbeing. She introduced us to the Cycle of Change, which provides valuable insights into how human beings form habits. So here is a six-step plan to help you set goals according to the Cycle of Change and the Prophet (saw).
It's time to achieve everything we want to in 2022!
Step 1: Pre-contemplation
Step 1 in the Cycle of Change: you don't actually know what you need to change.
Safiyah says this is when, 'you have a problem, but you don't realise you have a problem. So for example, I could be eating really badly and putting on weight, but not really noticing that'.
She continues, 'At the beginning of the year, we all jump on this idea - "I need to make some goals". But if you're not aware of the problems, the likelihood of you making a change - or making the right change - is not very high. You might say, "I want to do more exercise" but your eating is actually a problem'.
Thus, many people end up making popular New Year's resolutions - eat less meat, exercise more - without actually assessing if this should even be their priority.
'We talk a lot about it in therapy. So you get people who come in and to me it's very clear that they're struggling with low mood. But they don't have an awareness of it, or realise it's something they need to change'.
The pandemic has made it worse. We are all caught up in stresses like burn out, health anxiety and financial struggle. Now, the arbitrary time to make resolutions has arrived and we don’t really know what we need to work on. 'There's so much uncertainty', Safiyah says.
At Step 1, we are unaware of what we need to change. Getting to Step 2 means making an effort to get to know ourselves.
In order to even start setting goals, we must take stock of where we are. Only once we are aware of our own thoughts and tendencies - including our gifts and flaws - can we know what we need to improve.
Step 2: Contemplation
Step 2 is when you start to notice what the problem is. Safiyah gives an example, 'Oh, I've put on a bit more weight than I would like to. This is now becoming a problem'. Thus, you have gained awareness of an area you'd like to improve.
To get to this stage - it's time to grab a pen and paper. Write down what you've achieved last year and some things you'd like to do this year. You don’t have to think about how to change or even specific goals. Just note the areas you'd like to improve in.
It's important to consider every aspect of your life.
It is especially important to think about our relationship with Allah (swt). 'How often do we consider religious goals for the year?' Safiyah asks. She advises us to question ourselves, 'How do I want to improve myself as a Muslim this year?'
'Sometimes, our goals can be so narrow, focused on the here-and-now - making some money, or starting a business and stuff like that. But how is that working in helping you get to the long-term goal?'
As you write down what you'd like to do this year, remind yourself that these New Year's resolutions are not a chore - they are for you. Only write down what you genuinely want to do and look forward to doing.
And there's nothing wrong with setting 'small' goals. The Prophet (saw) did not consider it trivial to advise us to smile more or give even half a date in charity. So if you don't want to make major changes in your life right now - don't!
Step 3: Preparation
Step 3 is when you start making a solid plan. It’s time to think about how you're going to improve yourself.
Your plan should have three parts:
Now, you might be thinking that there's no need to make a song and dance out of it. Let's just start! We don't need a three-part plan.
However, every action must be prepared for. You have to make wudu before praying, put ihram on before Hajj and say Bismillah before eating. Don't run straight into doing - start with preparation.
- 'Part of your planning is to make du'a. We forget the power of du'a', Safiyah says. Beginning by relying on Allah will give you so much confidence - you are not just depending on yourself to keep up these habits, you are leaning on Allah!
- Setting SMART goals makes sure you're being realistic and taking control. Don't say, 'I will eat better'. DO say, 'I will only eat sugary snacks once a week, I will only order takeaway on Thursdays and I will make sure to eat breakfast every single day'.
- You can hold yourself accountable by rewarding yourself every time you achieve the habit. Or you can ask a friend to hold you accountable - if both of you are trying to eat better, you can motivate each other. It's so simple, but it actually works!
Safiyah has a specific recommendation for anyone who is struggling with their mental health and wants to change. Despite the stigma attached to mental health issues, she advises you to find someone you can trust and talk to them.
'It's definitely not easy to tell anybody you're struggling', she says. 'But it's an important thing to do because it shares the burden to some extent. Now you've got somebody who you can speak to about these kind of things. And not be judged for it'.
If you struggled in 2021, make sure you make 2022 different. If it's too hard to talk directly to someone, try sending them a video of a sheikh or expert explaining what you're going through. Share an article or a poem. Or send them a message if a face-to-face conversation is difficult. Make sure that someone knows that you are struggling and can help you with your mental health goals.
Step 4: Action
Finally, we've reached Step 4 - actually carrying out our New Year's resolutions.
Safiyah advises us to make short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. If the goal is to 'learn more about Islam' for example, you could:
- Watch a daily Islamic video for two months
- After two months, attend an Islamic talk every other weekend
- After six months, sign up for a longer Islamic course and start structured study
Even though we're at Step 4, let's take things slowly.
We all want the 'high' of doing well straight away. 'I just want to be good at what I'm doing. I want to achieve that goal'. Safiyah reminds us that the 'small stepping stones' are more important than the 'big finish'. 'It's just about being aware of not being greedy in wanting to get to that final goal without even making the baby steps'.
Remember: this is not a chore. You chose to do this because you want to. And taking small steps is actually more precious than a one-off grand gesture.
At this stage, Safiyah also advises not to talk to people about your goals (apart from your accountability partner). 'Only share things when you have achieved something. And if you share, make sure they say ma sha Allah. Not everyone has bad intentions but sometimes these jealous feelings can come in'.
Step 5: Maintenance
Speaking of intentions, we're now at Step 5, which is keeping up the good habits. And one of the ways to do that is constantly renew your intentions.
Remind yourself about why you set this goal to keep up your motivation and maintain your sincerity. Keep in mind that this new habit is adding value to your life - it's not a chore.
As you try to maintain your habit, there will be times when you become tired and slip up. But maintaining your habit means being flexible. If you've resolved to work out on Monday evenings and you miss a Monday evening, don't wait until the next Monday. Work out on Tuesday to remind yourself that you take this seriously and you sincerely want to make this work.
This technique is actually part of the Sunnah.
Again, if it's hard to hold yourself accountable - call your accountability partner!
Step 6: Relapse
Unsurprisingly, the idea of Relapse is built into the Cycle of Change - because mistakes are inevitable.
Safiyah says, 'Unfortunately, we do fall back into bad habits, because…until we do something consistently for a period of time, it's not going to change. If I work out every night for seven days, there's nothing to say that next Monday, I'm going to carry on exercising. Because it's not a habit yet'.
We can also learn from our relapses. 'If I'm aware that I can get back into my old habits, what can I do to prevent myself? And what do I need to do to get myself back on my feet?' Keeping track of what triggers us to fall into old habits can help us avoid those triggers.
Moreover, knowing that we will relapse, we can put less pressure on ourselves to be perfect. In fact, we can embrace our imperfection as a chance to become better servants of Allah.
Slipping up is not a dire mistake. In fact, it can bring us closer to Allah. It's an opportunity to ask Him for help, seek forgiveness and lean on Him more. When we repent, we can feel reassured that He is covering up our sins. We can renew our intentions and start afresh.
Safiyah's top three mental health goals
As mentioned at the start of the Cycle of Change, it's important to take stock of our lives before setting a goal, rather than making a 'random' New Year's resolution. However, we asked Safiyah if she had three goals that almost anyone could benefit from.
'Give time for yourself, be more in the present moment and exercise', she says. For the sake of our mental health, it's important to schedule time to be more mindful and take a break. 'Living in the world that we live in today - everything is super busy. Everything doesn't have to be about 'Go, go, go'. It's about giving time for yourself to actually do the things that are enjoyable for you'.
Finally, Safiyah strongly advises people to take their mental health seriously in 2022.
'If you're struggling and you think "Actually, I want to get some help", just get some help. You don't need to tell anyone. You know, you don't need anyone's permission. You need your own permission'.
'So often we don't even think about mental health when it comes to goals', she adds. 'It's important'.
We pray Allah helps us remember the importance of our mental and physical health this year, and that he enables us to take care of this amanah, amin!
We hope you enjoyed this article and that it motivated you to set goals in a healthy way! We’d like to thank Safiyah for her insights. You can learn more about Inspirited Minds on their website. Do share this article with friends and family, as the Prophet (saw) said, ‘Whoever guides someone to goodness will have a reward like one who did it’. [Muslim]