Optimizing our Ramadan effectiveness: 3 practical lessons

As we approach the midpoint of Ramadan, it’s a great opportunity to take a step back and review our progress. When it comes to worldly matters, we do things like define goals, and objectives and even incentives to make sure we achieve what we think is important. When it comes to Islam, we’re a lot more lax, almost as if we think relying on Allah means we’re not allowed to put together a plan. 

More and more, this is changing, with many taking on the excellent habit of setting goals for Ramadan. It’s important that we not be any more casual about our spiritual success than we are with our worldly success. Doing this maximizes our chances of making it into Jannah, so this is definitely the right direction.

I’ve been setting goals for Ramadan for about 4 years now (a little slow on the uptake, I guess — why haven’t I been doing it for the last ten years?). Along the way, I’ve stumbled through some pitfalls and found approaches that work better for me, and learned three useful lessons. I wanted to share those with you so that together we can increase our chances of success.

Aligning goals with objectives

One pitfall I found myself falling into was not making sure my goals (e.g. to draw closer to Allah) were aligned with my objectives (e.g. to complete reading the Qur’an).

For example, our goal in Ramadan might be to build a better relationship with the Qur’an. And so we adopt the same objective that we’ve heard about since being kids: planning to complete reading the whole Qur’an this Ramadan. Now this goal absolutely makes sense for someone who’s done it before, knows the Qur’an well, understands its language and has frequently contemplated its meaning.

But is it the right objective for everyone?

I used to set my Qur’an objectives this way. What I found in practice didn’t work for me: focusing on completing a reading of the Qur’an wasn’t giving me enough time to feel connected. The objective wasn’t helping me to achieve my goal.

I then came across a passage from Ibn Qayyim’s Miftaah Daar Al-Sa’adah that showed that I wasn’t off in la-la land, and that there was some basis for my feelings in the Qur’an and Sunnah:

Let us say that a person reads until he comes across a verse and he is in need of that verse to heal his heart. If he repeats it 100 times — indeed the whole night — then the reading of one verse with thinking and understanding is better for him reading the entire Qur’an without contemplation. It’s also more likely to lead to achieving Iman and tasting the beauty of the Qur’an. This was the habit of the early Muslims. They would repeat the ayah until the morning. It is confirmed that The Prophet (SAWS) spent an entire night reciting one ayah (5:118). Reading the Qur’an with thought is the foundation for the repair of the heart [Page 118, Part 1, Miftaah Dar Al-Sa’adah, accessed through Shamela]

I tried to work out how to modify my Ramadan objectives to capture this. It was a simple tweak, but it took me a long time to work out how. How could I approach the problem differently?

Reading the Qur’an takes most people about 15 hours. What if I committed to spending the same amount of time it would take to read the Qur’an (15 hours), but with the focus being not on the quantity but the quality, digging a bit deeper where it felt like it would allow me to bond with the Qur’an, just as Ibn Al Qayyim suggested? Rather than rushing through 20 pages in 30 minutes, what if it was OK if I spent the whole 30 minutes on 4 verses, but really understood them?

So far, this experiment is going well. This apparently minor tweak has made me feel much more connected with the Qur’an, and not make me feel guilty for taking the time to delve and understand. The objectives and goal are now well aligned with what seems to have the most positive impact on my Iman, and the approach that maximizes my success.

Measuring progress more flexibly

Excellent, but what else do we need to do to “lock in” the benefits of this approach?

The one complexity this adds is that you now have to track progress a little differently. One of the good things about the “read the Qur’an once in Ramadan” approach is you know exactly where you stand at any time: you see how far your bookmark is in the Qur’an.

The great thing is that we carry a device around with us now that simplifies this tracking immensely — our cell phones. There are so many tools to track time spent on anything; but if you like the feel of pen and paper, just use a paper bookmark and write down how much time you’ve spent reading on the bookmark, with the date next to it.

This also facilitates review. Given Ramadan is 30 days, it makes sense to put aside 10 minutes every 5 days to check on your progress and look at: how you’re tracking against your goals and objectives – but now you have a great record you can analyze and where you might need to tweak.

Worldly incentives for other-worldly goals

When you’re at work, and a good manager wants to encourage you to achieve a goal, what do they do? They offer a bonus!

Does it make sense to do this for our Ramadan goals as well? For example, should we set a goal like: if I do go to Taraweeh at least 27 nights in Ramadan, then my spouse and I will go for a celebratory meal at that new high-end-but-oh-so-pricey Halal place that we normally wouldn’t go to? Or even: we’ll take that halal holiday to Turkey that we’ve been talking about doing forever?

This is clearly a controversial question. From a worldly point of view, researchers differentiate between intrinsic motivation (“I am doing this because I enjoy doing it”) and extrinsic motivation (“I am doing this because there is some reward I get from doing it”) and some (e.g. Daniel Pink’s Drive) — based on a wealth of scientific research — conclude that intrinsic motivations are superior.

From a religious perspective, some might also question this and say that you are mixing your intentions — are you praying taraweeh because of the holiday in Turkey, or to seek Allah’s reward? I don’t find this argument holds water — because you could have already taken the trip to Turkey without using it as an incentive. It’s no different from investing in an alarm clock for Fajr prayer: you’ve taken the rizq Allah has given you, and you’ve used it to help you serve Allah. And the intention — of course — is to use the worldly matters in a way that encourages you to do good; something that is clearly not Haram.

Others would argue that you’re kind of fooling yourself — you could just do whatever you want anyway. But the other thing worth noting is that there is a sense of deserving it when you go on holiday, or enjoying a good meal: I worked hard for this, and this is my reward for that. You don’t get that if you just do it yourself.

So far, the experiments with a small financial incentive are really going well. It also worked really well for me in another project — losing weight. It gives you that little extra “oomph” when you’re in the 6th rak’a of Tarawih, and deciding whether you should complete the eight.

Bringing it all together

Once you’ve aligned goals and objectives, worked out how to track things, and (maybe if it works for you) set out an incentive plan that appeals to you, it’s time to turn it into a concrete plan.

You, of course, should find your own tools to do this, but I wanted to share how I do it as an example.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending 30 minutes a day with the Qur’an, at whatever pace and depth I feel maximizes my iman. I’ve set up myself to do this anywhere I go: I’ve installed the QuranAndroid app, and I installed a translation (Sahih International) and one Arabic commentary (Tafseer Al-Sa’di).  I read, and when there’s a verse that I don’t understand or that just catches my eye because of its beauty, I’ll dig a bit deeper. So that it doesn’t get lost, I use Keep to jot down any notes for future reference, and also to help with retention — when you write it down, it sticks with you for longer.

To track how much time I spend reading, I use Keep Track. This makes it super easy for me to record the time spent, and produces some pretty pictures like this one showing my progress.

Keep Track for performance logging

I also schedule 10 minutes every 5 days of Ramadan to review my goals.

I’ve also set up some small incentives for myself: if I achieve a certain amount of Qur’an reading completed, I get a little bit of cash to spend on my hobbies. I have similar incentives for prayers in the masjid and taraweeh.

When it comes to worldly matters, we are quick to start thinking about how we achieve our goals. If we put the same effort into making sure we achieve our goals in Ramadan, we stand a much better chance of success. In my case, carefully thinking about alignment between goals and objectives, measuring progress and creating small incentives has helped to find a way to make my Ramadan more successful. Your approach may differ, maybe these tools won’t work for you, but devoting the same energy and creativity to thinking about how to make our Ramadan beneficial to us and those around us is something we should devote even more time to than we do to our worldly success.

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