An excerpt from the farewell sermon of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reads:
All mankind are from Adam and ِAdam is from dust, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white person has no superiority over a black nor a black person has any superiority over a white except by piety and good deeds.
Without doubt, Prophet Muhammad left a telling reminder of the importance of good deeds just before his departure, providing a huge incentive for Muslims to constantly engage in good deeds and ward of bad behavior.
But as human as believers are, grappling with temptation and fluctuation levels of faith is a daily battle for many. At the same time however, the highest abode of Heaven as a promise for those who engage in the best deeds is a temptation like no other, and its rewards are not superficial or temporary, and definitely know no contest as far as returns are concerned.
The secret in turning good deeds into lifelong habits is achieving a strong relationship with God and asking for His help when engaging in good deeds. God in turn, opens doors to many opportunities to further excel as a Muslim… and a believer must remember that, so the benefits of deeds do spill over into the Hereafter.
Good Deed vs. Habit
A good deed is defined as an act of kindness that would benefit another individual other than one’s self.
More importantly, in Islam, good deeds are recognized as acts for the sake of pleasing God. When a person commits to engaging in a good deed, he or she reserves his or her intention for God and does not expect recognition or any reward in return.
Of course, if such rewards do materialize (for example, a tax deduction for a donation to charity) a believer must recognize this as a reward from God on earth, for such a deed.
However, the Quran is firm on the ultimate rewards of sincere deeds, thus believers should continue to strive for rewards in the hereafter, especially when the rewards are not necessarily seen in this world:
Allah is never unjust in the least degree. If there is any good (done), He doubles it, and gives from His Own self a great reward. (4: 40)
A habit, on the other hand, is something that you do automatically on a frequent basis. With proper conditioning, the brain actually is able to create pathways to ensure that this habit is done on the desired frequency, and even at a desired schedule.
The subconscious of the brain is arguably the most powerful part of the brain as it allows a person to engage in acts without inhibitions or hindrances.
Prophet Muhammad encouraged:
Do whatever you like as long as it does not embarrass you. (Al-Bukhari)
Thus, in order to turn a good deed into a habitual ritual, a starting point would be to condition the mind to create a habit out of the good deed without feeling hindered or ashamed of such a deed.
Finding synergy between the two will actually help a person build confidence that he or she will engage in a good deed in the long run and will help ward off any doubt that encroaches upon the mind.
Set a Goal for the Short Term First
Setting a goal to begin engaging in a single good deed is like writing a contract with one’s self. Imagine an important business deal where two parties sign a contract to honor an agreement – this is exactly the same, only that the person making the agreement is signing a contract with himself.
For some people, this may sound easy – especially those with high expectations of themselves and refuse to even allow themselves to fail.
For those who feel less motivated to succeed, this may sound difficult. But to even begin a good deed, a believer must believe in himself, and this can be achieved by putting full trust in God, as it is said:
If Allah helps you, none can overcome you: If He forsakes you, who is there, after that, that can help you? In Allah, then, let believers put their trust. (3:160)
When setting a goal, it is a good idea to have it written down and there are various ways in which this can be done. It can be written down on a piece of paper, laminated and kept in a wallet.
The goal may be as simple as “I will read one page of the Quran a day,” but writing the goal down encourages a person to act on it because of its sheer importance.
By reading such a goal out loud daily, it wards of doubt that it can be achieved. Motivational speakers often encourage participants in their workshops to look at their goals at least twice a day – taking it out of their wallets and reading them out loud in the morning and in the evening as a reminder to one’s self.
Other ways would be to keep a scheduled and frequent reminder on a mobile phone or email – whichever is more convenient for the recipient.
Most importantly, these frequent reminders imbue a vital message in the brain, that a certain deed is becoming a habit and is there to remain stuck in one’s mind as long as one is still functioning.
Be Reminded of Consistency
A habit is something that is done on a frequent, most likely scheduled basis and carries low importance. This is not to say that good deeds are of low importance!
On the contrary, good deeds are extremely important but in the case of turning one into a lifelong habit, a good deed becomes something that is light weight, something easy to do (without thinking twice), and does not carry a burden upon the person who is doing it.
In fact, even a Muslim at his weakest who continues to strive for God will earn full recognition for his or her deeds:
But those who were sure that they were going to meet Allah said, ‘How many a small force has triumphed over a much greater one by Allah’s permission! Allah is with the steadfast. (2: 249)
Keeping consistent is very important as this eliminates any original inhibitions one has of the habit. Mostly, habits are done on a daily basis, so with each good deed, it is best to have it incorporated into a daily routine. The “one page of the Quran a day routine” is a good example.
In this instance, a person who is working on this good deed can schedule the one page reading after Isha’ prayers or during lunch break or on the commute to work; this way, a habit is formed and associated with an activity that is done daily making the good deed a light weight habit. Whatever the deed is, if it successfully turns into a lifelong habit, God reminds that such level of spirituality cannot be broken.
Surround Yourself with a Positive Environment
Creating a positive environment is essential for the good deed to flourish. If a person wants to turn reading the Quran, a page a day, into a habit, he or she should make his or her environment conducive to do so. Let’s say the scheduled time is to read after Isha’ prayer, a positive environment would be one that is rid of distractions.
The television needs to be switched off; other chores need to be completed; the room should be clean and preferably have a refreshing scent. This will ensure that the deed is done in a smooth manner, without any hassle or disruption.
Similarly, if a person wishes to read the Quran on the daily commute, investing in a pocket-size Quran or downloading a digital Quran into an e-reading gadget would help create a positive environment. Also, commuting before the peak hour will help the deed become a pleasant one.
Keeping positive company is also a good way to enhance a positive environment. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said:
The example of a good companion and a bad companion is like that of the seller of musk, and the one who blows the blacksmith’s bellows. So as for the seller of musk then either he will grant you some, or you buy some from him, or at least you enjoy a pleasant smell from him. As for the one who blows the blacksmith’s bellows then either he will burn your clothes or you will get an offensive smell from him. (Al-Bukhari)
If a person keeps with those who engage in good deeds, it will be easier for him to do the same. If a person ends up befriending those who are sarcastic, cynical, demeaning or demoralizing with respects to a good deed, this could cause demotivation in carrying out the good deed.
These same people also have the potential of casting doubt in one’s capability to eventually habitualize a good deed, thus it is important to be rid of such temptation to fail. Sharing good intentions with supportive peers is a great way to keep a good deed consistent and it will evenutaly turn into a habit.
Restore & Strengthen Your Relationship with God
In reaching short term goals, it is amiable to reward one’s self with a small celebration, as every person thrives on positive feedback and attention. This does not mean splurging on a present or treating one’s self to an expensive dinner, but a good way to celebrate such an accomplishment would be to review the intentions of creating this target and goal in the first place.
Going over the reasons why this good deed was important is a quick fire way to renew one’s pledge with God. Also this is the perfect time to renew such a goal or add more good deeds to this list, as with each good deed comes the ease of engaging in more of the same as God will open more doors for positive accomplishments.
Always remind yourself of the rewards in the Hereafter and continuously supplicate for help from God to successfully live in this world and the world to come, as this is definitely one of the best ways for self-motivation.
Furthermore, it is best to remind one’s self that God’s promises are always fulfilled:
If My servants ask you about Me, I am near. I answer the call of the caller when he [or she] calls upon Me. They should, therefore, respond to Me and believe in Me so that, hopefully, they will be rightly guided. (2: 186)
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)