Rethinking Time Management for RamadanApr 01, 2023
The Time Management Imperative
Before we begin, it’s worth reminding ourselves why Ramadan has a time management imperative. David Allen, creator of the world famous GTD system, has explained that when we want to do anything at any given moment there are four criteria which should determine our choice: context, time available, energy and priority. If you think carefully, all four are quite dramatically altered in Ramadan.
Since it is the holiest of all months with many required rituals (the least of which is rising earlier for Suhur, fasting and the Tarawih prayers) the context is unique. What can be achieved in Ramadan is necessarily different to other months (notice I didn’t say less than other months). The time available in the evenings is considerably less with preparations for iftar, breaking of the fast (which often involves hosting or being hosted) and the lengthy Tarawih prayers. Fasting can be (but not always) quite draining so we may not have the energy levels to execute tasks as in other months, or, at the very least, our energy levels change in their daily pattern. And since it is such a holy month, our priorities shift considerably (understanding this can solve many modern time management complaints) from the mundane to the profane.
Given the above - whether we’re a manager in a large company, a student, businessman or professional – the normal means of achieving our daily goals is necessarily going to require a rethink. But, firstly, our very goals in Ramadan need to be very clear.
The Purpose of Ramadan and How it Affects our Time
Scholars when discussing the nature of ibaadah, or worship, have usefully categorised it into two types: direct and indirect. As you are aware, all actions – be it washing the dishes or going through the motions at work – can be worship if transformed by the wonderful elixir that is intention. However, there are other modes of worship – such as dhikr, salat and reciting Quran – which are direct and have no worldly connection. Direct worship is clearly superior, in of itself, as it is a spiritually stronger means of pleasing Allah. For much of the year, we have very little direct worship prescribed: the five daily prayers, Hajj and zakat take a tiny portion from our daily life. On the other hand, there is plenty of opportunity to engage in indirect worship: raising a family, earning a living and serving the community. Ramadan, though, is designated especially for direct worship. The briefest glance at the practice of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them) during Ramadan proves this quite conclusively. [For a fuller discussion of the philosophy of Ramadan please consult Mufti Taqi Usmani’s Islamic Months p83-86.]
This brings us to the modern dilemma. Muslim professionals often worry about how they are to perform at their optimum during this sacred month. An inferiority complex develops where many feel embarrassment at ‘productivity’ declining. Office workers, students and project workers apologetically explain that they can’t take on as many evening assignments. Muslim newspapers bemoan the nation’s economic decline. In reaction to this, an obsession into how one can maximise health and energy levels develops - so we can match non-fasting non-Muslim colleagues. With all my reading into success literature, motivation and effectiveness, I could easily jump on the bandwagon and spur on my readers to increase their output despite Ramadan’s ‘economic limitations’. But I won’t, because that would be missing the point.
This month is about worshipping Allah directly. It’s about focussing and enjoying the benefits of fasting. It’s about increasing our relationship with the Quran. It’s about going to the masjid and enjoying the annual opportunity to pray 20 rakas in congregation listening to beautiful recitation. And if that means less worldly glory, so be it! There is absolutely no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed in having a quiet word with one’s boss, and explaining that, due to the sacredness of this month, you’ll have to take less on. Be proactive. Take some holiday time in advance; delegate some work to subordinates, or rearrange your schedule to fit in more work at weekends. Once you understand that Ramadan’s priority is worship, everything else will fall into place. Take the example of a married housewife who looks after a few kids at home. If her husband dies, suddenly she has to take on a 40 hour week commitment of work, on top of the existing school run, household chores and motherhood. In her wildest dreams she never conceived of working on top of her already busy lifestyle. But her husband died. She had no choice. She had to do it. So she did, by being proactive. She found a way: she employed a nanny; she batched her chores, she cut out time-wasting activities. By being proactive, she increased her efficiency 200%. And there are countless real life examples like this all over the world.
What this example illustrates, as Dr Schwartz explains in his classic The Magic of Thinking Big, is that “capacity is a state of mind...when you really believe you can do more, your mind thinks creatively and shows you the way.” Thus, in Ramadan, if we make ibaadah our focus, ask Allah to give baraka in our time and truly believe we can manage all we need to – then the solution to how to fit it all in will simply come.
If you’ve grasped this vital point – the correct attitude towards the purpose of Ramadan - then you have the most important lesson in this article. All other techniques are branches compared with this root message. If someone wants to be a good Muslim and they learn one or two good deeds here and there, how will such a person compare to one who decides to make taqwa (God-consciousness) and obedience to all Allah’s commands their basis? The latter is focussing on an attitude and this will cause him to make progress at a far superior rate to the Muslim focussing in on a few isolated actions. Similarly, if you make one’s intention and determination to make Ramadan a project for increasing one’s direct ibaadah, you’ll make enough progress without having to do much else.
Nevertheless there are certain strategies which can enhance and maximise our use of time even after we have the right attitude. Such knowledge is the subject matter of Part Two of this article.
Ramadan’s Inbuilt System
Despite the plethora of time management systems, methods, organisers and techniques, the best is often the simplest. Being able to schedule all your activities is actually the most efficient way of utilising our time. That’s why schools, colleges, universities, businesses and countless other institutions do it. When you have a set programme to follow, you get things done. The problem is that we simply lack the self-discipline to programme our personal lives in the same way as our work/studies.
Allah, through the guidance of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and his inheritors, has created within Ramadan such a schedule that automatically promotes the discipline to get a lot done.
The Ramadan Schedule
The recommended daily practices of Ramadan thus provide a structure within which we can plan our day accordingly. Below, I give some ideas for how we can utilise these times.
It is not the purpose of this article to give religious guidance. The suggestion of acts of worship is based on my own practice and limited knowledge. For further details, clarification and specific knowledge of the most praiseworthy acts of worship to be performed, please consult trustworthy qualified scholars.
From the outset, most of us have to rise earlier than usual to partake of the highly recommended sunna of having a meal before the fast starts. If not in the practice already, this gives us the opportunity to pray the night vigil prayer, Tahajjud – the merit of which is enormous.
For men, most masjids adjust their jamat times so that they don’t need to wait too long after their suhur before praying Fajr in congregation. Usually there’s at least a 30 minute gap after your prayers, and this time is ideal to engage in dhikr or Quran recitation. Consult the prayer times of your local mosques; jamat times often vary and you may find an alternative mosque’s Fajr jamat time to be more suitable for your schedule.
Women praying at home can pray their Fajr and then – since they’re awake anyway – sit for 10-30 minutes for devotions.
Another praiseworthy sunna is to sit after Fajr in dhikr until around 20 minutes after sunrise; one then prays the Ishraq salat. If one has no work or study commitments (with Ramadan this year being in the summer holidays this is a reality for many) then you can and should make this a daily practice. However, if you need to be awake early for work then this may be too difficult. For example, in Leicester, UK, you’d have to rise around 2.30AM for Suhur and Tahujjud, make ibaadah for 30-40 minutes, pray Fajr at 3AM and then stay up until 6AM.
There’s no easy solution to the Fajr and Ishraq issue. Prayer times vary across the world and you need to work out a sleep schedule you can keep up. Personally, after consulting with scholars, I decided to prioritise praying Tahajjud and Fajr in jamat, sleep and then, upon waking at the normal time for work (8-9AM), pray Salat al-Duha. This prayer is similar in merit to Ishraq and thus solves my personal problem.
Maghrib and Iftar
The minutes before Iftar and Maghrib are highly desirable for ibaada, particularly supplication (dua). A wonderful sight at mosques at this time is that of rows of locals engaged in fervent recitation, dhikr and dua.
Iftar inevitably involves invitations. Scheduling important work or personal devotions is undesirable for this time as you have little control. Resist the temptation of allowing guests or hosts keeping you from Isha jamat and Tarawih. Actually, the fact that we have Tarawih prayers, provide an ideal timeframe.
Although not compulsory, praying Tarawih in congregation at the mosque has many benefits – the most memorable of which are to be able to hear the whole Quran being recited in prayer, and the exciting communal atmosphere. Sisters should research local facilities as most cities provide space for them to also participate.
Devoting the last ten days to exclusive worship at the mosque (or a room in the home for women) is an unparalleled method to ensure maximum time for drawing near to Allah. As it is a big time commitment, like Hajj, for many of us it may only be possible to perform a few times in our lifetime. This needn’t be the case. Over the years I’ve witnessed friends proactively adjusting their work and holiday times so they could fit in this tremendous ibaadah annually. If you want to do it, you’ll find a way. And once you taste its benefit, you’ll want to experience it again and again. Whole chapters of time management discuss dealing with interruptions – phone calls, emails, unexpected guests, post. The laws of Itikaf mean that all such interruptions are eliminated. In a modern world characterised with constant interruptions, the ten days of Itikaf are an incredible way to unplug from all the chaotic rush, and, instead, to tune into remembering Allah.
Major Time Management Considerations
As alluded to already, one may have to adjust one’s sleep pattern. The sunna sleep after Zuhr, known as qaylula, is practised by many to help them re-energise. For workers fasting, the time immediately upon arriving home is ideal. Sleep can also stave off hunger. Just remember to make an intention before flopping off in exhaustion!
An oft-neglected sunna is to talk less after Isha and to sleep early. After a whole day of fasting and the long rakahs of Tarawih, most of us are pretty tired and so should be able to take advantage of this practice. Consequently, one should have more energy in the day.
Nutrition and Energy
Like me, I’m sure you’ve felt the surprising increase in energy when fasting. Modern eating habits include excessive eating of sugary snacks, junk food and meat. As we lighten our stomachs, it’s as if our bodies become more lithe and freed to work for us.
Much of this can be undone by the famous cultural problem of overeating during Iftar, dinner and Suhur. Scholars, magazines and radio programmes discuss this issue so much, that I’ll say quite simply that if we want to be more energised in the day, what we eat is far more important than how much we try to stuff in. A nutritious breakfast of organic muesli, hard-boiled egg, wholemeal toast and fresh fruit is superior to stuffing oneself with the previous night’s oily samosas, pakoras, fried paratha and Coke!
Also, on a time management note, the time we save in missing breakfast, lunch and snacks is incredible. When I completed a personal time-log I found that it was not uncommon for an average meal to take 15 minute preparation and 30 minutes eating time. If tea breaks take half this time, then during our fasting hours we save at least 2 hours quality time to devote to other projects.
Naturally, there are times of the day when you want to divert yourself from the rigours of fasting. Reading, sport, relaxation or socialising for a short period can be recommended here. Having worked at several Muslim schools, I can attest to the fact that our children can be just as vigorous in their playtimes during Ramadan!
For ideas on how to create energy for yourself, consult http://zenhabits.net/55-ways-to-get-more-energy.
Blocking out set chunks of time to devote to specific activities is particularly imperative in this month. Most obviously, I’d recommend making the generic block of working for ‘worldly’ concerns, such as your job, community projects or studies, in the day and devoting oneself for ibaada in the night. This follows the Quranic indication, ‘And we made the night a covering, and the day for seeking livelihood’ (Surah Naba) and is the practise of our pious predecessors.
Similarly, time in the weekend can be blocked out for chores or projects you don’t have time for during the week.
As the ‘Month of the Quran’ we should all have a programme of recitation and/or study of the Quran. Make a target for the month and then divide by the number of days. Don’t sleep till you’ve met your daily target.
30 days is the ideal time period to form a habit. Daily habits are very powerful because they enable you to perform small but regular deeds which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has informed us are the ‘most beloved to Allah’. You could choose a daily wird (a formula of dhikr you want to continue daily), a portion of Quranic reading or study of a sacred science, such as Tajweed. Just as important, but usually neglected, would be to form an inward habit, for example, speaking only good or being generous. For some excellent tips on habit forming, I recommend you read http://zenhabits.net/tags/habits/.
The wisdom in having one night equivalent to 80 years worship, and then withholding the precise date of that night, is to make us avid to seek it. Itikaf enables one to seek this night; if we can’t do all ten nights we should at least endeavour to perform a nafl (optional) itikaf of a few days. And if we can’t do any days of itikaf, we should certainly increase the intensity of our ibaadah.
Leaving the Wasteful or Bad
One of the most comprehensive hadiths which touch upon time management is ‘From the beauty of a person’s Islam is to leave that which does not concern him.’ Leaving aside TV, excessive socialising, playing of computer games and internet surfing are all praiseworthy objectives. Out of sheer respect for the month we should leave all sins and pointless activities. I won’t dwell on this point, though. If you focus on all the recommendations above, Ramadan is such that you won’t have time to waste time!
Whatever you do this month, realise that Allah has placed immense baraka (blessings) in Ramadan. That’s why thousands of Muslims this month start wearing hijab, or grow their beards, give up music, start learning their religion or change their trend for the better. This is a month of training. All the practices suggested in this article are recommended at all times and so it is hoped, with Allah’s help, that whatever we pick up in Ramadan, we continue forever afterwards. Ramadan is the best time of year to reassess and reorganise our priorities, putting Allah first. If this is not effective time management for Muslims, then I don’t know what else is.