08/01/2012 02:22 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Ramadan Reflection Day 13: How To Break Bad Habits

Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

A story that I was told when I was younger involves a young man who cared deeply for his entire family, and amongst them his wife and young son. One day, this young man's mother passes away and his elderly father needs a place to go, so he comes to live with this young man. The elderly father needs constant care and attention and the young man's wife provides it, but not without complaint. She tells the young man that he needs to do something about his father and he replies only with silence.

One night, they all sit down to eat dinner and the elderly man is so frail and fragile, that the weight of the plate that he holds in his hand is too much for him to handle, and it falls from his grasp onto the ground, shattering into pieces. "Look at what your father has done now," says the young man's wife. "Won't you do something about this?"

The young man tells his elderly father that since he cannot eat without making a mess, he will no longer be allowed to sit at the same table as the young man, his wife and son. Instead, going forward, he will sit at a table by himself in the corner. And since he cannot eat off of the same plates that the rest of them eat off of, from now on he will eat only from a wooden bowl. The elderly man, with a tear in his eye, does what he is told.

The next day, the young man comes upon his own son and sees him sitting on the ground playing with some scraps of wood. He wants to join in and so when he gets close to his son, he asks with love and adoration in his voice, "My son, what is it that you are doing?"

The boy, reciprocating the same love and adoration for his father, says, "Oh my father, I am making a wooden bowl for you to eat out of when you get older."

You and I learn explicitly and implicitly. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are influenced by each interaction we have had the fortune or misfortune of having in our lives. The person that I am today is definitely impacted by every yesterday that I lived in this world and who I am today will most definitely impact who I will be tomorrow. The same can be applied to those who are around me. This becomes important for me to understand because the habits that make me who I am are usually rooted in something, just as the ones that make you who you are come from somewhere. During Ramadan, many of us become more acutely aware of our habits and use the opportunity to break some, while making others.

Habits are things we do automatically and repeatedly, often without conscious awareness. Some are useful, other are not. Habits can be good, bad, physical and emotional. Even though they are not consciously done, they can be consciously formed and can be consciously deconstructed.

A starting point would be to sit down and reflect on what your habits actually are or what you would like them to be, and approaching that process broadly.

If building a good habit, there are a few specific things that you can do to help make it more concrete.
  • Set a specific goal -- you want to know what it is that you are working towards and let that be your focus. Sleeping better as a goal is very different than sleeping seven hours a day. The more specific you are, the more opportunity you give yourself to make that goal a reality.
  • Have a plan in advance -- what changes will I need to make, if any, to make this goal a reality? How will my schedule shift and what will it do to my personal and professional life? Having a strategy makes a difference and can help in staying disciplined.
  • Let someone know what you're doing -- make your intention explicit by verbalizing it to someone and build accountability in a good way to make sure you are getting done what you need to get done. There is nothing wrong with having someone's help.
  • Do it -- moving beyond discussion, it's important to put into practice what you are hoping to achieve. You won't build the habit up of reading more or exercising regularly if don't actually pick up something to read or do some kind of exercising.
  • Stay disciplined -- if you fall off the wagon, get back on. Don't let one or two slips turn into a reason that you can't do something.
  • Seek support from others -- this is different from letting someone know beforehand. Throughout the process, a friend or colleague can be helpful. You might want to even take on something together so it becomes that much more enjoyable an experience.
  • Reward yourself (with something healthy for you!) for success -- there's nothing wrong with patting yourself on the back or celebrating success. If anything, it will only help encourage you to stay committed and do more.

If you are breaking a bad habit, a few things to keep in mind:

  • After becoming conscious of what it is that you are doing, try to understand why you do it -- this is not to justify the action or habit, but to give a better understanding of how to build a solution to eventually overcoming it.
  • Invest in the long-term benefits rather than the quick fixes -- many habits that we dislike or are not healthy, stem from our being satisfied with short-term complacency. In doing so, we give up long term contentment. Don't think about what this will do for you in the immediate, but about what it will mean for the future.
  • Have a plan for free time -- one of the things that makes overcoming a bad habit difficult is not knowing what to do with the time that I now have access to. If I stop watching TV for eight hours a day I'll need to know what to do with those eight hours, otherwise I'll fall back into what I was doing before.
  • Be patient with yourself -- its ok to take time in overcoming a habit. If you slip up, just start again. Before you know it, a week without doing it will become a month and then a year and so on.
  • Don't take on too many things at once -- you want to be honest with yourself and not work in extremes. Realize what you can handle and try your best to figure out which makes the most sense to take on first, and how you should approach things that come up later
  • Enlist the help and support of your friends, family and community. None of us can kick bad habits and begin to form good habits without the support of others. Don't let feelings of guilt or embarrassment hold you back and be sure to reach out to people who won't make you feel bad, but will give you the encouragement to help you move forward.
  • Celebrate milestones -- reinforce yourself each step of the way by letting yourself be proud of every day you are successful.
  • Seek help for more serious addictions. If you are struggling with a substance abuse issue or pornography or spending too much money, you might be trying to compensate for something or trying to fill a void. The right help can be an effective way in overcoming the addiction in a healthy manner

I think here would be a good place to mention the quote that I shared in my first reflection, but thinking of it now from the standpoint of making and breaking habits:

There are as many forms of fasting as there are organs of perception and sensation, and each of these has many different levels. So we ask to fast from all that Allah does not love for us, and to feast on what the Beloved loves for us. Let us certainly fast from the limited mind, and all that it conjures up. Let us fast from fear, apart from fear and awe of Allah's majesty. Let us fast from thinking that we know, when Allah alone is the Knower. Let us fast from thinking negatively of anyone. Let us fast from our manipulations and strategies. Let us fast from all complaint about the life experiences that Allah gives us. Let us fast from our bad habits and our reactions. Let us fast from desiring what we do not have. Let us fast from obsession. Let us fast from despair. Let us fast from not loving our self, and from denying our heart. Let us fast from selfishness and self-centered behavior. Let us fast from thinking that only what serves us is important. Let us fast from seeing reality only from our own point of view. Let us fast from seeing any reality other than Allah, and from relying on anything other than Allah. Let us fast from desiring anything other than Allah and Allah's Prophets and friends, and our own true self. Essentially, let us fast from thinking that we have any existence separate from Allah!

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