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A Quick Guide for Setting Better Goals – And Sticking To Them

This piece is written for our college-aged or young professional audience, but these tips are relevant for anyone looking to set better goals this upcoming year!

The feeling of a new year makes us excited to set goals about what we’d like to accomplish next year. It gives us motivation to be and do better in the upcoming year.

But sometimes, we set lofty goals that we’re unable to accomplish beyond a few days or weeks. Or, we tend to set certain goals based on what everyone else is doing even when we need to prioritize something different, like our mental health or spiritual growth. Each person’s journey of growth is unique to them, so check out the tips below to help you create personalized goals that work for you.

1. Reflect

Self-improvement isn’t just for New Year’s; for Muslims, self-improvement is a life-long journey! The concept of “purifying” or improving ourselves is integral to our faith. Allah SWT created us with a soul, and He promises success to the person who constantly works to purify his/her soul.

“Truly he has succeeded who purifies it. And truly, he has failed who defiles it” [Surat Al-Shams, 91:9-10].

Muhasabah, or self-questioning, is a practical way to make sure that we are always trying to improve. Muhasaba requires taking an honest look at ourselves and reflecting on how we can be better in all areas of our lives. As you think about which goals to set for the upcoming year, reflect on these questions.

  • What am I striving for and why?
  • What am I doing well? What can I do better?
  • What were three of my biggest challenges this year? How did I try to overcome them?
  • What do I want more of in my life? What do I want less of in my life?

2. Choose Only 2-3 Areas to Focus On

Sometimes, we feel like there is so much that we want to accomplish. You may want to study more, volunteer more, spend less time watching TV, or even prepare for big changes like graduating or getting a new job. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the goals we’ve set. That’s why it’s important to commit to making small, consistent changes.

The Prophet SAW said: “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few.” (Sahih Ibn Majah)

For this year, try this exercise. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. On a piece of paper, jot down ideas for goals you’d like to accomplish or changes you’d like to make next year. You can make a list, a chart, a drawing, or just free-write. The purpose of this activity is to allow yourself to brainstorm without any limitations. After 10-15 minutes, look at your list and narrow down your goals as you consider these questions:

  • Which of these goals have I tried to accomplish before? What worked and what didn’t?
  • What do I feel most motivated about? What do I feel the least motivated about? Why?
  • If I had to choose just one thing to work on, what would I prioritize? Why?

Choose just 2-3 goals and start with the goals that are easiest for you to accomplish (or the ones you feel most motivated about). You don’t have to keep the same goals for the whole year – you can choose to focus on these goals for the first 3-6 months of the year. When you’ve accomplished some of them, you can set different goals for the next few months.

3. Focus on Holistic Growth

When setting goals, it may be easier to focus on goals that are material – like exercising, eating healthier, spending less, etc. But consider the spiritual or emotional growth that you might need to make. Some examples would be:

  • Challenging negative thoughts that you say to yourself
  • Not holding grudges
  • Avoiding assumptions about others
  • Having more trust in Allah SWT

Allah SWT created us with a body, mind, and soul. A holistic approach to change is to nurture each part of our being, starting with our soul and its connection to Allah SWT. This could look like:

  • Mind: I want to journal each night about 3 things I am grateful for to bring more barakah (blessings) into my life.
  • Body: I want to exercise 3 times a week so that I am strong, healthy and energized throughout my day.
  • Soul: I want to recite a few ayah of the Quran every night to help me stay spiritually connected to God.

As you think about what goals to set, consider whether you are setting goals with this outlook in mind.

4. Make a Solid Plan 

Sometimes we have a general idea of what we want to improve, but we don’t have a plan for how to improve.Let’s say that you want to improve your relationship with your parents. This could look different for each person. If you live apart from your parents, it could mean calling them more often. If you live with them, it could mean helping out more with chores or expenses. If your conversations tend to end in arguments, improving your relationship with your parents could mean learning and trying different communication skills when you speak with them. There can be more than one way to improve your relationship with your parents, so which one should you choose and how do you make sure it happens?

Brainstorm a list of options and choose something that feels right for your relationship. Break that goal down into small steps that you can take to build towards your goal gradually. For example, you can start by calling your parents once a week, and in a few months, you can commit to calling or visiting more frequently than that. To help break down your goals into a solid plan, use the SMART goals format to get specific about what you want to accomplish, when you will accomplish it, and how you will accomplish it. Fill out a SMART goals worksheet to make sure that your goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-oriented.

5. Be the Best Version of Yourself

In the digital era where we see everyone’s goals and accomplishments on social media, it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate. But remember that personal growth is not a race; each person’s journey of growth is unique to them.  Focus on how you want to grow. Think about where you are now and what a good next step would be for you. Renew your intention by reflecting on why each goal matters to you. Be genuinely happy for others and see their accomplishments as encouragement to pursue your own goals. If being on social media is discouraging you, it may be helpful to take a break and focus on yourself.

Lastly, know that growth is a process, so be patient with yourself and reframe your thinking as you strive towards your new goals–adopt a growth mindset!  When you have a setback, it’s a chance to reflect and learn about yourself. What worked and what didn’t work? What did this setback teach you about yourself? It’s okay to feel frustrated, but try to reframe your thinking and power through with a new approach instead. Reflect on how you have improved and what you’ve learned about yourself, even when you are struggling. Celebrate your accomplishments along the way! Being grateful for your successes, big or small, will give you encouragement and motivation to keep working on being the best version of yourself.

*Ramadan is just a few months away. Refer to this article to think about goal-setting in Ramadan. 

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Zakat eligibility of The FYI

The Family & Youth Institute, or The FYI, is a well-known Muslim organization in the United States. It works to promote mental health and wellness by strengthening and empowering individuals, families, and communities through research and education. It has been working for many years to bring Islamic perspectives to understanding and promoting mental health in our communities.

It is dedicated to serving and supporting Muslims – safeguarding our deen, our families, and our future generations. Therefore, the work of The FYI comes in the category of ‘fi sabeelillah’ or the Path of Allah, within the eight categories where Zakat money can be used.

Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed for it and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah, and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah, And Allah, is Knowing and Wise.”
(Al-Tawbah 9:60)

According to scholars who widen the meaning of fee sabeelillah to include any activities that promote Islamic growth, The FYI is indeed eligible to receive part of the Zakat funds for its programs and services. I urge Muslims in America to support this organization through their donations, general charity, and through their Zakat. I ask Allah swt to strengthen and guide The FYI to continue its good work in supporting Muslims.

Shaikh Ali Suleiman Ali, PhD

About Shaikh Ali

Sh. Ali Suleiman Ali was born in Ghana where he spent his childhood studying with various Muslim scholars. He then moved to Saudi Arabia and enrolled in the Islamic University of Madina.  He graduated with a degree in both Arabic and Islamic Studies. Dr. Ali went on to complete his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Sh. Ali serves on the Advisory Council of The Family & Youth Institute. He is the Senior Imam and Director of the Muslim Community of Western Suburbs in Canton, Michigan. Additionally, he serves as the Director of Muslim Family Services in Detroit and is a council member of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA). He is also a member of the North American Imams Federation (NAIF) and the Association of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA).