Opinion: Time for action – Goal setting and Islam

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Masood Nawaz Malik, London

“And say not of anything, ‘I am going to do it tomorrow’. Unless Allah should will.” (Surah al-Kahf, Ch.18: V. 24-25)

In all honesty, this article could start and end with this passage from the Holy Quran. At first glance of these verses, the immediate understanding is that taking action now, today, is the pertinent step in elevating a goal (something we wish to achieve) from pipe dream to reality.

In the above verse, Allah emphasises the importance of focusing on today and to act, not just leaving things for our tomorrow, as the Muslims were going to do when faced with attacks on their religion from Christianity, during the Latter Days. (Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra, Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol.4, p.440)

Similarly, from a secular view, Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States and political philosopher, went on to quote, “Don’t put off until tomorrow, what you can do today”.

The importance of this will be discussed further below, but ultimately, success lies in the art of taking action now. So, what is it that hinders our ability to take action? Is it our belief that we still have time, the art of procrastination, the lack of focus or a multitude of other excuses we sell to ourselves?

The list is endless, but let us focus on the key setback – procrastination – as Allah is clearly guiding and advising us to avoid doing this very thing. Rumi also once stated, “I truly tell you, everything you now see will vanish like a dream”, further emphasising that our future is unknown and impressing the importance of taking action now. Many attribute procrastination to sheer laziness. Etymologically, the word procrastination is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare – to put off until tomorrow.

Other than delaying the task at hand, procrastination also comes from a Greek word akrasia – doing something against our better judgement.

Another definition, by Christian Jarrett in her article, “Why procrastination is about managing emotions, not time”, quotes Dr Tim Pychyl, a member of the procrastination research group at Charleston University in Ottawa, who says:

“Procrastination is an emotional regulation problem, not a time management problem.”

Although we procrastinate to feel good in the short term, in the long term, it leads to guilt, for not acting now subsequently leads to underachieving tomorrow. Over time, procrastination has evolved to become a coping mechanism for people endeavouring to overcome negative emotions and moods induced by specific tasks.

It gives them a fleeting sense of relief by not having to deal with the task immediately, however this inevitably creates a vicious cycle of guilt and negative feelings supressed by a short spurt of relief. It inherently behaves like a self-inducing drug.

Why does one truly procrastinate? There are a myriad of reasons, however let’s focus on the concept of a fixed negative mindset. This is the inability to positively adapt to and embrace all the moving parts of the goal and surrounding environment or context. This naturally hinders our ability to initiate action due to fear and further halts growth, learning and the development of new skills. The danger in harbouring a fixed mindset is that it not only prevents personal development, but also impairs our inner peace and makes us fearful of the unknown. It is in a growth positive mindset where a person fosters a permanent state of humility, with the belief that their learning and intelligence grows with time and experience, where success lies.

This is compounded with changing the emotional narrative to a positive one that allows one to overcome procrastination, further reinforced by research that shows that once a step is made towards a task, following through becomes easier. (Christian Jarrett, May 2020).

Our primary responsibility therefore is to start, focus on the present moment and have trust – tawakkul – in Allah that He will pave out the right path in assisting us in the achievement of our goals.

Regardless of the outcome, we have an opportunity to grow and develop as a person. If things don’t work out as desired, then we chalk it down to an attempt from which we garner a valuable life lesson. The true focus should be in who we become and how we grow while pursuing our goals.

Thus, one needs to develop firm faith and trust that the plan of Allah for His servant will be the best of all other plans as reinforced in the Quran:

“… And they planned and Allah [also] planned, and Allah is the Best of planners.” (Surah al-Anfal, Ch.8: V.31)

And when this tawakkul in the Creator becomes firm, ways (to a right and easy path) will start to appear leading one to their goals. The virtue of goal setting is closely linked with the concept of clarity of what you are trying to achieve.

The purpose of seeking out clarity is to forge a potent emotional connection with the goal. This is best accomplished when goals are aligned with ones values and core belief system. This is realised by asking the right questions:

1. What is it I want to achieve?

2. Why do I need to achieve this goal?

3. When do I want to achieve this goal by?

4. What do I need to achieve this goal?

5. What are the possible obstacles I will face along the way?

These are some of the questions that will help build a roadmap to achieving ones goals. The underpinning theme here is to take action now. All goals, be it short or long term, can be broken down into bitesize chunks with daily action points.

Subsequently, rewards are associated with little victories, contributing to an endorphin boost and thereby quelling that negative voice that perpetuates our procrastination cycle. The most efficacious approach is to plan your day the night before, or first thing in morning after Fajr prayer, aligned with your goals.

On the day itself, we must mindfully execute action points using sheer willpower and without being distracted. The night before is the time to ponder over the why of the tasks that need to be achieved for the next day.

Then when the past becomes a dream and we stumble upon tomorrow as our present, it is for us to mind-map “how” we execute our actions and goals for the day. Our thinking has to be navigated and focused around our goals, as mentioned by James Allen in As a Man Thinketh:

“… until thought is linked with purpose there is no intelligent accomplishment. With the majority the bark of thought is allowed to drift upon the ocean of life. Aimlessness is a vice and such drifting must not continue for him who would steer clear of catastrophe and destruction …”

James also highlights that when one doesn’t have a core purpose in their life, they fall prey to petty worries, fears and troubles, which serve to be indications of weakness just as deliberately planned sins lead to failure and unhappiness. (As a Man Thinketh, James Allen, 2005, p. 41)

When reviewing the verse (the opener of this article) again, the most pertinent piece of information is the simple statement, “Unless Allah should will”. This is what, in essence, is fundamentally needed, together with taking action now, in any goal we desire to undertake; dictating the success in achieving that goal.

Our goals and the success of these are elevated through enveloping them in a spiritual narrative, or, simply put; starting with, “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Ever Merciful” and ending with the understanding that they will materialise if Allah should will.

Here, we are making our intention clear, attracting the blessings of Allah and in turn, leaving the success of achievement of our goals in Allah’s hands – only realising them if He should will. This is to manage one’s expectations, and accept, on our part, the responsibility to our work ethic and prayer. All our true intentions concluded with the acceptance of Allah’s will enables one to cultivate patience and steadfastness and accept that the outcome lies in the hands of Allah.

Our takeaway is the valuable life experiences and lessons we collect on the way during the journey of achieving our goals. Rather than treat “insha-Allah” as a means to avoid something we probably had no plan of doing and use it as an excuse, Islam teaches us to take action first, then trust in Allah.

The true reality is the present moment. It is what we do now that defines our tomorrow. For this reason, it is imperative to act now and not fall prey to a reality where we daydream of a future that does not exist or is out of reach, by means of neglecting the present moment. This is what Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra has explained in the commentary of the verse that this article started off with; that Muslims will develop this mindset.

We hinder our progress in the indulgence of robbing our present by means of dredging up a past we can’t go back and change or attempting to crystal ball into the future. How do we then remain in the present moment to achieve success and happiness? Happiness lies, not in reaching a destination, but emerges from embarking on a journey; enabling growth and new learning. It is a fleeting state of mind, correlated with forward momentum and aligned with making progress on our goals; especially those anchored by our core belief system.

This can be understood in the “everlasting heaven” – where we continue in our journey of gaining Allah’s pleasure and love.

Circling back to my opening statement, “And say not of anything, ‘I am going to do it tomorrow’. Unless Allah should will” (Surah al-Kahf, Ch.18: V.24-25), these words should be heeded and one should truly take positive action in the present for we don’t know if tomorrow will exist for us.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a brilliant article, very well written , purposeful,motivational, and much needed by a wider audience. It really shows amazing insight into that one Quranic verse quotes and i feel our youth would benefit a lot from reading this piece.
    Maybe this article could be more widely shared within Jamaat, especially Khuddam and Atfal.
    Jazakallah and thanks

  2. A wonderful article combining the aspects from The Holy Quran into daily life and tasks.
    Especially the part is noteworthy to mention that we truly have to have firm faith (Tawakkul) in Allah and in His plans. Every task we should do will either bring us towards the right goals or it will transform us so become stronger and take a side way to these goals, so that we will be benefited from both ways.
    Jazakallah for this on point article and insight!

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