The day I converted to Islam, which happened to be the first day of Ramadan, I whipped myself into ‘shape’ immediately. On that first day, I began to pray 5 times a day, wear hijab, fast and read Qur’an. My first 30 days of Ramadan whizzed by, leaving me dizzy and exhausted. Not eating or drinking from dawn to dusk and struggling to meet my religious obligations was a balancing act to which I was not familiar. It left me staying up all night, sleeping during the day between classes and skipping one too many meals. I even passed out in the middle of a science lecture! Frustrated with my ‘failure’, I vowed to do better the following year. In retrospect, my unrealistic expectations put me on the fast track to spiritual burnout.
During my second Ramadan, I was working in Washington D.C. and surrounded by an active, young and diverse Muslim community. I received advice by the truckload and most of it was conflicting information. In my naïveté, I hadn’t realized that different cultures, nations and individuals interpret religious identity, obligation and purpose differently. I simply shouldered the advice and scrambled to meet various expectations, pressing forward with nawafil (optional) prayers and du’a, Qur’an readings and taraweeh prayers. Despite adapting my behavior at an unsustainable pace, being surrounded by the positive and professional achievers in my Muslim D.C. community, praying all night and praying and fasting all day wasn’t a challenge. It was a divine pleasure. My second Ramadan came and went, and I had succeeded – or so I thought.
Fast-forward to my third Ramadan: Alone in my parents’ home awaiting a visa to Saudi Arabia. In my home town, the Muslim community is almost non-existent; the nearest mosque is thirty minutes and two towns away. Busy with preparations for my new start, Ramadan came before I could plan for it. My brothers were delighted to have someone at home to cook for them at dawn, to squeeze in an extra meal at sunset and to taste the exotic recipes I had acquired during my time in a diverse community. My parents were amazed at my dedication to prayer and the price and taste of halal meat. I was in the perfect position to share my faith. Instead, I beat myself up all Ramadan because I wasn’t having a ‘real’ holiday
surrounded by Muslims. I viewed my lack of taraweeh prayers and weekly halaqas as a failure, when I should have been grateful for the opportunity to share my faith with the ones I love the most. I squandered what could have been an amazing Ramadan – I was living with my mother, father and brothers for the first time in six years. If I had realistic expectations of myself and planned accordingly, I wouldn’t have wasted such a wonderful opportunity.
With three Ramadans under my belt, I entered new territory – life in the Middle East. I went from being the only person who celebrated Ramadan for miles to just one of the crowd. I thought my first Ramadan in Saudi Arabia was going to be the greatest one yet – except it wasn’t. I was working as an English teacher for a university, and although our students were not obligated to attend, the teachers were, but without any tasks to keep us busy. We started sleeping all day and staying up all night. The lavish parties for iftar caused me to gain five pounds and skip taraweeh in a sluggish stupor. After two weeks of stuffing my face, the oppressive heat and the lack of productive outlets for my energy, I couldn’t wait for Ramadan to be over.
After I survived my first Saudi Ramadan, I broke down. I wish I could say that I simply rolled downhill, but it was more like diving headfirst off a cliff. Four years after I first said my shahadah, I ran out of fuel. The fire that had driven me to find God had vanished and nothing was left but ash. I could barely find the will to put my scarf on or get up and pray despite the athan being audible from nearly every location. Miserable and ashamed, I began to search for a way to get back on the right track.
One of the first things I read made me realize I was setting myself up for failure. After doing a few searches on motivation and success, I came across an article about ‘SMART goal setting’. This concept changed the way I viewed spiritual development. There are many different ways this acronym is used, but the general concept remains the same.
Make sure your goals are:
Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
My previous goal of “pray more” would turn into “Pray Fajr/Dhuhr/Asr/Maghrib/Isha”.
Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
Since spirituality is difficult to measure in some cases, you could adjust this one to be particularly meaningful or motivating. Writing is extremely important to me, so I decided to start a prayer journal and perform a ‘freewrite’ for 15 minutes a day. Move towards your passion and use that excitement to build momentum.
Achievable (agreed, attainable)
This is one of the most difficult to stick with. Although all of us would like to think of ourselves highly, we have to be realistic. If you don’t read Arabic, how realistic is it for you to set a Ramadan goal of reading through the Qur’an twice in Arabic? Keep in mind your current state and limitations in order to set goals that can actually be met in the time allowed.
Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
Your goals should not only be specific, measurable (or meaningful), but they should also be relevant.
How do we tie relevance to faith?
Isn’t it all relevant?
Think about what you are going through right now. What are you struggling with? If you are struggling to perform five prayers on time, focus on that. Your goals are YOUR goals. Setting arbitrary goals is setting yourself up for dissatisfaction
Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)
Although time is a measurable and concrete concept, it still can evade us. Plan your days, weeks and month before Ramadan starts. This way you can prepare yourself mentally and physically for the journey ahead.
My unrealistic and unsustainable goals caused me to spiritually burnout. Getting back on track required me to completely change how I gauged my spiritual success. I was incorrectly, but unknowingly, defining myself by others’ expectations. Setting individual goals allowed me to reflect and reconnect with my ultimate goal: to please Allah (SWT).
Revamping your goal-setting strategy might sound like an abstract way to approach Ramadan and your spiritual life. However, there is no reason not to utilize strategies for success into our ultimate definition of accomplishment – the rewards of the Hereafter.
*SMART is an acronym to describe the ideal components of a smart goal. This criteria is commonly credited to Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives concept and was first used in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran.