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 choices: 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, a businessman or professional – the normal means of achieving our daily goals are 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, usefully categorized 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, salah 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 of 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 and his Companions 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 maximize 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 focusing 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 rakahs 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 during the 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 to 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 barakah 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 focusing on an attitude and this will cause him to make progress at a far superior rate to the Muslim focusing 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 (coming soon!) of this article.