How to Build a New Habit Successfully

Asalam ‘alaikum to all my sisters out there. We will be talking about bad habits today, a subject that can be a touchy one. What is a bad habit? Keeping all emotional judgements aside, a “bad” habit is any habit that simply isn’t giving you a favourable result or a result that you desire. Let’s also look at this from a spiritual perspective. If we explore closely, we will notice that any of the actions that are haram are forbidden because they are harmful in some way. I’m referring to the strongly forbidden acts here, such as drinking alcohol or  gambling. Our concern isn’t about these actions, of course, so let’s apply this concept to our day-to-day habits.

We may have some habits that aren’t necessarily haram, but they aren’t serving us either. For example, going to bed late, eating chocolate daily or procrastinating are all habits that would fit in this category. Any of these habits can become ‘bad’ ones when these behaviours stop us from being our best. The good news is that we can break free from negative habits and instead build more empowering ones. So let’s look at a step-by-step strategy to build new, empowering habits.

Step 1: Remember that you can’t eliminate a habit!

Now this might seem like terrible news, especially after I’ve just mentioned that we can break harmful habits. Just hang in there; there’s better news around the corner. The most important concept to understand is that a habit is a pattern of behaviour. It is a behaviour that has been carried out consistently enough for it to have become automatic. For example, when we first learn to drive, we need to think about looking at the mirrors, accelerating, slowing down and so on. After a few weeks of practice, these actions become second nature. We don’t need to think of what to do, we drive on autopilot. A habit is a pattern of behaviour that’s on autopilot. So if we wish to change a habit, we can’t undo the one that’s already there. It would be impossible to de-program it, instead we need to replace it with another habit we find more useful!

Step 2: Think about the ‘benefit’ of the old habit.

Think about your ‘bad’ habit and ask yourself, “what does this habit give me?” You would naturally think that it gives you nothing good, in fact, it takes away some your productivity, for example. Allow your first reaction to dissipate. Now remind yourself that each habit we have meets a positive need. The behaviour may be unhelpful, but the need it meets is valuable. For example, some years ago I had a young woman contact me to coach her mother. Her mother was extremely ill and getting sicker by the day because she was chain smoking. Her daughter wanted her to stop and so she asked me to talk with her. I went over to the lady’s home, which I customarily don’t do, but she was too ill to come to me. She was smoking a cigarette, and I could see how ill she was. After speaking to her for about an hour, I realised that she was not willing to quit smoking. She knew that the habit was bad for her, but deep down, for whatever reason, smoking was making her happy. The happiness is what she craved and she was unwilling to give it up, no matter the cost. She was not willing to explore any other option. She was simply uncoachable about this. Before you can shift your unwanted habit, ask yourself the following questions:

What does this habit really give me?

What does this habit make possible in my life?

On a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being fully and completely, how willing am I to replace this habit with another one, if that habit was also meeting similar needs?

Is there any situation or reason why I might be unwilling to replace this habit?

If so, is it ok for me to keep this habit? How might this habit impact me in 5,10 or 15 years?

Is it still alright for me to stick with this habit? Or am I ready to replace it?

Step 3: Choose a new habit to implement.

It was essential to discover what the deeper value associated with the ‘bad’ habit is. Now that you know what the deeper value is, you can replace this habit with another one, if you are ready to.

The previous exercise was designed to clarify whether the cost of keeping the habit is high enough to warrant releasing it. You will have probably noticed that it is. Now that you are ready to replace the habit, it is time to brainstorm up to three new behaviours that you would now like to try out to replace this habit. If you need some help, go ahead and ask a friend to brainstorm with you. Next, ask yourself the following questions in order to reflect on how empowering this new habit will be for you:

How will this new habit impact my goals?

On a scale from 1 to 10, how empowering would it be for my overall life?

How might it help me achieve my potential in the long run?

Could this habit have any negative impact on my life? If so, what might that be?

Is this the new habit I want to implement?

If you discover that your chosen behaviours may have some downsides, now would be the time to make adjustments. Go back to the drawing board until you find a new behaviour that will meet your deeper needs, as well as be empowering for your overall life. Once you have this new behaviour clear, it will be much easier to implement. If, however, this is the right behaviour choice, then go ahead and work on the next step.

Step 4: Focus on implementing the new habit

Now that you are sure that this behaviour will work for you, it is now time to implement it. The first step is to be really specific and clear about what the habit is. Write down your new chosen behaviour in a clear and positive sentence. For example: “I will drink three glasses of water first thing every morning when I wake up, except when I am fasting.” By stating the behaviour clearly, you will be able to measure it. Next, carry out the desired behaviour on a daily basis. Set yourself visual reminders where you can see them. In the beginning, they will support you in remembering what you need to do. It takes at least 30 days of continuous action to allow the brain to create it as a new behaviour. Each time you use this new behaviour as a replacement for the old one, this behaviour will become stronger in your mind. As you stop carrying out the old habit, the old behaviour will eventually die out.

Changing habits needs a systematic approach. One last thing to keep in mind is to be aware of anything that ‘triggers’ the old habit for you. For example, if you feel the urge to eat junk food when something stressful happens, then stress can be a trigger for you. Remind yourself to carry out the new behaviour instead each time the stress hits. Use visual reminders, put up pictures, use words – anything that supports you towards the new behaviour.

Building any new habit can be daunting, but if we have a systematic approach then we are far more likely to be successful. Insha Allah, I hope that these strategies will support you in creating empowering habits that will help you achieve your goals and dreams. My very best wishes to you on the journey.

Sayeda Habib empowers Muslim sisters to achieve their goals, enhance their relationships, and increase their self confidence and self-esteem. She works with clients from all over the world. To find out more log onto www.makelifehappen.com or email sayeda at sayeda@makelifehappen. com