For many, Ramadan brings a renewed sense of empowerment and determination to make changes and adopt their new found habits. So why does it all crumble so quickly once the month is over?
Embedding Ramadan Habits
It has only been a month since the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting, family and reflection. For many, Ramadan brings a renewed sense of empowerment and determination to make changes and adopt their new found habits. It’s a break from the routine and a chance to re-evaluate the direction of travel. A fresh start. Not only did Ramadan mean saying no to habits that don’t serve us, but those that do serve us too like regular meals, sleep and water. It brought with it more connection with the Quran, better eating habits, and more family time.
Fast forward several weeks to the present and many a resolution has given way to the same old pre-Ramadan routine. But the potential changes felt very tangible, we had been implementing them for a month with a heightened awareness of the Almighty as well as a greater feeling of well-being. So why does it all crumble so quickly once the month is over?
The answer may lie in behavioural science and the psychology of habit formation. It was easier to build a new habit during the holy month for several reasons. There was a collective movement towards and emphasis on strengthening our relationship with our creator. Little daily quotes and reminders on social media, conversations centring around food, recipes and nutrition as well as centres holding Iftars and Dua nights bringing the community together. It didn’t feel like a struggle against the tide. But most importantly, our routine altered quite dramatically during Ramadan. The late meal meant sleep patterns changed for many of us, necessitating and justifying the need for a nap. The early morning rise for Suhoor meant many incorporated some Quran time or extra night prayers. Building in little habits ‘for this month only’ with a defined end point was prioritised, with a race to the finish mind set. For many, work and studies hindered this to a degree. Commitments and
responsibilities continued, but there was still an elevated awareness while ‘Ramadan mode’ was in place.
But, as we incorporated these little habits, we felt somewhat lifted, more connected to the Creator, to ourselves and to those around us. This feeling may have propelled us to pledge to maintain these after Ramadan, to resume straight after the break for Eid festivities. But just a few weeks later and these habits seem to have vanished without a trace.
How can we truly re-establish them to benefit us throughout the year, and build on these every Ramadan in a manner that serves us? The answer again, lies in the psychology of habit.
Daily Quran Recitation
If we want to start and maintain a new habit we need to make it easy and remove the obstacles and excuses in the way. Aim for little and often to build an identity which comprises this new habit, that can later grow. Some Islamic sources advocate as little as 5 verses per day, which may not take more than 2-3 minutes out of the day. Reading a chapter a day as many would have done during the holy month may not be sustainable outside of this month when normal routines resume, but connecting with the Quran needn’t be so taxing. A short and swift daily habit is much easier to maintain, so start small and keep going. Some have found it helpful to build a network and recite together, e.g. via a dedicated WhatsApp group, dividing the 30 chapters among 5-10 individuals to encourage and support each other. Rotating the chapters allocated on a monthly or bimonthly basis can help vary the recitation for each reader.
Additionally, to give yourself the best chance of maintaining a new habit for longer, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits recommends habit stacking. Think about where in your day this 2-3 minutes of Quran recitation could neatly sit. Maybe before getting up from the prayer mat after Fajr payer, while your morning cup of tea is brewing at home or at work, or while waiting for the kids in the car. If there is a ‘slot’ that this new habit clearly fits into, it will be easier to maintain and the situation or preceding act will signify a trigger for it.
Return to the Ramadan Nap
Napping doesn’t come naturally to all of us, and many people finding drifting during the daylight hours a real struggle. It was necessary during the holy month to replenish energy and mood. But now that the daily grind is properly back on, we are constantly running and looking for greater productivity and efficiency. It seems a profound waste of time to stop for a nap. But this attitude is essentially flawed according to Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, director of the Center for Human Sleep science at the University of California and author of the best-selling book ‘Why we Sleep’. His book is studded with scientific evidence suggesting humans were indeed created to sleep in a ‘biphasic’ pattern, with two bouts of sleep in a 24-hour period. This may explain the drop in alertness that we experience after lunch. Dr. Walker has shown that the period between 1-4pm exhibits a drop in brain activity. Many Mediterranean countries continue to mitigate this slump by way of a mid-afternoon ‘siesta’. Shops and businesses will close as employees return home for a rest and short nap before the evening resumption of activity.
This may explain numerous narrations detailing that our Prophet (PBUH) would advocate a short nap when asked about increasing alertness and even memory.
Self-development and Knowledge
Many of us start listening to lectures, read a book or two or watch Islamic series during the holy month to enhance and develop ourselves. There are lectures delivered during Ramadan that we watch live or even in person at the centres. This learning can enhance our well-being throughout the year and learning is listed as one of The Economics Foundation’s 5 ways to well-being. Extensive research conducted found that continuous learning can help improve our mental health. Reading or even listening to books can be used to fulfil this element with an increasing offering of audiobooks on Audible and Youtube. Podcasts have also grown in popularity, some delivering Islamic content like The Muslim Vibe and Muslim Central as well as centring on other topics like health, politics, history and many more. Having a new podcast episode released on a weekly basis can help keep us engaged and counteract boredom, replacing it with a sense of anticipation.
Another of the 5 ways to well-being is ‘connect’. Luckily now that the pandemic is mostly behind us, we were able to connect more during this holy month with family, with friends and with our communities. Coming together for Iftar or to read Dua or praying together led to a greater sense of belonging and fulfilled the human need for social connection, an element proven to buffer against mental ill health. We can keep this habit alive throughout the year by ensuring we have more of our meals with family, engage more with colleagues in person
rather than by email and possibly attending centres where available on Thursday nights, Friday prayers or at the weekend for programmes.
It is highly recommended to fast throughout the year, with the Prophet advocating fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting can be extremely empowering and many people feel a heightened sense of will power and mental energy. It adds to the feeling of regular connection with the Almighty and allows us to feel a greater sense of gratitude while providing time for pausing and reflection. The health benefits have been proven through adopting the 5:2 approach which I have previously covered providing multiple health benefits.
So, let’s see if we can resurrect some of the habits we found so fulfilling during Ramadan. It’s never too late, but we must be realistic and practical. Keep it going and involve an accountability partner if you wish to keep you on track and motivated. After all, the saying goes… ‘We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act, but a habit.’