Our friend and productivity ninja from Think Productive, Graham Alcott, is on an experiment where he joins us to fast during the first three days of Ramadan. To know more about this experiment, you can read the introduction here. In this series, he shares his reflections regarding fasting and productivity based on this experience. (Read Fasting Experiment: Day 1 | Day 2)
Friday evening. The end of a long week and for me the end of my first ever days of fasting. Joining Muslims for the first few days of Ramadan has been a really memorable experience. I’ve been touched by the support and love I’ve had from so many Muslims, from all over the world, predominantly finding out about my experiment via our friends at the Productive Muslim site, who’ve been syndicating my blog there too each evening.
Before I started, Mohammed from Productive Muslim wanted me to come up with my productivity advice for Ramadan. So in this final post I’m going to reflect back on Friday (which was a bit of a breakthrough for me) and then give some more general reflections at the end.
Friday didn’t start as I’d planned. I woke at 8am. I realised immediately that my 1.30am alarm – designed to wake me so that I could eat again before the fast begins at 2.34am – had failed me. Damn complicated iPhone alarms! Before I slept I’d obviously eaten a meal, but I’d not gone crazy on the water and by 8am I was feeling marooned in a state of dehydration. Long busy day ahead. The hottest day of the year outside. Oh dear.
I spent the morning with a friend, working on a new business idea. I was dreading it because I expected to feel weak and off my game. She kept eating all morning too, which on Wednesday would have driven me nuts, but honestly, I don’t think I felt tempted or envious by her food even once. Maybe once by her cup of tea. It was a buzzy, ideas-driven three-hour session where we had a couple of big lightbulb moments and I was pretty impressed that I felt alert and on the ball, aside from my mouth being pretty dry and making it difficult to speak normally at times. Perhaps I’d crash and burn in the afternoon when the adrenaline wore off, I thought…
Then in the afternoon I was at home putting final touches to a really important contract (more news next week!) and prepping for a strategy session I’m delivering tomorrow for a board of trustees of a national charity. So I needed to be on the ball and I was expecting a massive struggle. But instead, I felt light, calm and motivated.
I don’t know what’s happened to me physically since Wednesday, but the hunger pangs have been much-reduced today (and this despite me eating much less last night) and I’ve had none of the headaches and shakiness that had me needing naps on the preceding afternoons. I feel as if my body has adjusted to my new metabolism somehow.
It took me 3 days to get to a stage where I wasn’t ever-so slightly panicky about whether I’d faint or whether I’d generally be OK. If you’re reading this as a Muslim who has fasted for years, you probably don’t remember that feeling of uncertainty when you fast for the first time? Or perhaps everyone gets it for the first day or so, every year? Maybe it was the release of that tiny anxiety that also helped me to relax and see fasting as a ‘normal’ state for me. Not just normal, but I’d even say comfortable, peaceful and centred.
So, what did I learn?
The final day was a breakthrough. I felt really alert and productive and actually the elimination of the hassle of thinking about food and drink far outweighed any inconvenience of having to think about it, crave it, prepare it or digest it! My mind felt less cluttered, sometimes a little ‘floaty’ (in a gentle and comfortable way) and really quite focussed.
So before I started, I was expecting to write a bunch of “surviving fasting” reflections or tips. When of course, that’s what Muslims do every single year for Ramadan! “Survival” is the wrong word entirely. So instead, these reflections are “for a successful fast”, because I’ve truly started to see the positives that can emerge from what on the surface is a deliberate sacrifice to create conditions of “adversity”, but is actually so much deeper than that.
My 5 reflections for a successful Ramadan fast:
1. When it comes to your calories and meals, it’s about quality not quantity
As the days went on, I gave up panicking about how many calories I was ‘under’ for the day and just made sure I was eating well and packing my foods with good nutrients and low-GI energy. I avoided sugar and high fats. My new brain fuel shake came in really handy and I started trying to drink a small one of those before my main evening meal, as well as one in the early hours.
2. You have to plan your days
One of the nice facets of fasting is that you plan carefully. Experience taught me to be kind to myself: too much time rushing around, getting stressed, getting hot on public transport or rushing in the sun takes its toll very quickly – but if you plan, it works well. This has a nice effect in that it can really boost your productivity, as it encourages the kind of daily review rituals that I talk about in my book. I found myself becoming more conscious of the importance of this – and even doing my daily review before I slept, knowing that as I was digesting food, it was a useful and peaceful time to set myself up for the day that lay ahead when I woke up again.
3. Eat that frog
The proactive attention needed to crack the most difficult work we do is often in shorter supply when fasting. So make sure you start your day by doing what Brian Tracy called ‘eating that frog’ (doing the hardest thing first). This is something that’s good to do every day of the year, as it makes the rest of your day easier and reduces anxiety, but Ramadan has certainly helped me back into the zone with that one.
4. Be vulnerable
You’ll feel irritable and grumpy and confused sometimes. Certainly our Western approach to such things is to deny this reality and… well, just leave people feeling that you’re irritated or confused by them! On the occasions this happened to me this week, I just ‘named’ it. “Oh sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought. It’s the fasting”. Or “sorry I snapped, I was thinking about muffins”. Learning to be vulnerable is the only way of inviting care and empathy into that situation. Pride goes out the window, and it’s freeing that way.
5. Change the view
Often when we’re stuck or feeling sluggish, we’ll grab a coffee or get a drink or a snack to shake things up, but the body and the brain’s performance is not exclusively linked to food. But likewise, fasting does bring periods of quite low attention, so you need to find some ways of ‘rebooting’ that work well for you. Mine were things like mini-meditations, stretching my body and shaking my arms and legs, splashing cold water on my face, brushing my teeth (I know, I looked this up and apparently as long as I don’t swallow the toothpaste or the water, it’s OK!), and breathing in some fresh air.
And the final thing I want to say is something about the personal, not the productive. I was slightly nervous that I’d receive some criticism for doing this – I was all too aware that talking about religion and furthermore talking about your extremely limited experience of someone else’s religion can be a sensitive subject, even when your intentions are the right ones. But I’ve been genuinely touched and humbled by the incredible support I’ve had from Muslims and non-Muslims all around the world – in comments on my blog, on my twitter account and via email. I’ve felt a deep sense of connection from it.
It just goes to show that if we strip back or ignore all the hate and fear that our politicians and media trade on, if we approach the world with a sense of curiosity and adventure, if we seek understanding, empathy and acceptance and if we reject the narratives of absolute truth and superiority over others, then the world is full of as much love and community as I’ve experienced these last few days.
I’m quite sad that my 3-day Ramadan experience is now over and in the second half of July’s experiment I’ll be returning to playing around with the theme of ‘Fuel’ more generally. But I’ve seen enough already to change my opinion of fasting from thinking of it as a negative ‘denial’ to thinking of it more as a ‘shifting of state’. And I’ve seen enough to know that it certainly won’t be the last time I undertake fasting.