As human beings, we’re driven towards setting goals and achieving them. Unlike animals, we are not content to simply sit, eat, reproduce, and sleep; we have an innate ‘meaning-seeking’ side to us that’s part of our fitrah (natural disposition) which ultimately is geared towards finding and fulfilling our ultimate purpose and that is to be a true ‘abd/slave of Allah sub??nahuwata’?la (glorified and exalted be He).
The question is: If we’re naturally inclined towards setting goals – how do we go about setting goals that matter? And more importantly, how do we go about achieving them?
What’s wrong with the typical goal-setting techniques
Most self-help books teach a goal-setting framework that has the following basic steps:
Have a vision of where you want to be X year(s) from now/or at the end of your life. They’ll ask you to do exercises such as “imagine your eulogy”, or create a vision board.
Set long-term goals that will help you fulfill the above vision.
Set short term goals/milestones that help you make progress towards your long-term goals.
Use a daily/weekly planner to stay focused on achieving your short and long-term goals.
Makes sense? Absolutely. Does it work?
In fact, after coaching several people on achieving their goals, I’ve realized that the above techniques usually works best with short-term “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, & Timebound) goals and not so much with long-term important goals that take several months/years to achieve; here’s why:
The above framework assumes you have the perfect vision of what the future would look like based on your current circumstances and life ambitions.
It assumes you have perfect control of every conceivable factor towards achieving your goals (hence making you ultimately responsible for any failures in achieving them).
Below we are proposing a different framework for goal setting – one that is more rooted in Barakah Culture vs. Hustle culture and more in line with the Prophetic approach towards goal setting.
Here are the steps and why they are important (and they work!):
Step 1: Set powerful intentions – not visions
It has been narrated on the authority of Umar b. al-Khattab that the Messenger of Allah (?) said: “(The value of) an action depends on the intention behind it. A man will be rewarded only for what he intended. […]” [Sahih Muslim]
When a gardener is planning their garden – they start with an intention/seed of what they want to grow. They might have an idea/vision of what that garden should look like, but ultimately they focus on planting the right seeds for their garden. As our Chief Editor Dina Basiony noted in a recent internal message to the team: “The word niyyah (intention) has the same roots as the word nawaat. And the verb “intended” in Arabic is the same as the noun “seeds”, they have the same roots”. Therefore, when you plan your goals, instead of focusing on the end result or vision board of how things ‘should’ be. Focus on the intentions/seeds of your goals (i.e. the Why).
Why is this important?
Our vision of what our future should look like changes with our life’s changing circumstances but our intentions – if sincere – remain robust through the changing seasons of life. For example, you might have a vision of being a successful best-selling author (which may or may not happen), but your intention is to spread beneficial knowledge which wouldn’t change regardless of whether you become a successful author or not.
We’ve all heard the hadith that actions are judged by intentions. This is a fundamental principle of goal setting from a Prophetic perspective. It’s not what you do that matters, but the intention behind it that matters the most. The more powerful the intention – the greater the reward for the action even if you don’t achieve your goal. As Prophet Muhammad ?allall?hu ‘alayhiwasallam (peace and blessings of All?h be upon him) said: “He who supplicates Allah sincerely for martyrdom, Allah will elevate him to the station of the martyrs, even if he dies on his bed.”[Muslim]. This means that just for having the sincere intention to do something or achieving a certain goal, you’re considered a success in the eyes of Allah sub??nahuwata’?la (glorified and exalted be He)! (Unlike traditional goal setting techniques that make you feel like a failure unless you achieve a specific goal).
You can have multiple intentions associated with a single goal; so even if one or two of your intentions shift or are not conceivable, you can have other intentions that will drive your actions. Unlike having a single vision – where if it doesn’t work out – then you’re back to the vision board trying to come up with a new one.
Why does this work?
Focusing on intentions helps you stay focused on the WHY and be adaptive to changing your ‘vision’/goal as long as the intention remains the same.
The higher/loftier the intentions – the more connected your goals are to your ultimate purpose in life and that is to seek Allah’s subhanahuwata’?la (glorified and exalted be He) pleasure.
If you get demotivated from achieving your goals – all you have to do is remember your intentions and they’ll re-energize you.
Intentions are deeply personal and only Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) knows how truthful you are about them – so focusing on purifying our intentions is a consistent effort vs. a one time exercise.
Step 2: Understand your season of life
One of the major flaws of traditional goal setting techniques is the lack of appreciation for the changing macro and micro seasons in a person’s life. You’re considered a ‘loser’ if you can’t achieve your goals even if things are outside your control and stacked up against you on a personal, business, and socio-economic level.
Think of a gardener; they don’t plant a seed just anytime in the year. They are in tune with the ebb and flow of the world around them and the changing seasons and climate, and only plant the right seeds at the right time. Failure to do so would guarantee the failure of their plants. Being conscious of the changing seasons in one’s life helps you focus on when you should ‘go for your’ goals and when you should perhaps park it until a better opportunity arises.
There are 3 types of ‘seasons’ to be aware of in your life as you set your goals:
1. The Macroeconomic Season: We don’t live in a bubble but are affected by the macroeconomic condition of the nations we live in. Think of the Global Recession that took place in 2008 and how many people were affected by it.
These economic cycles of life occur in every place and every time and part of being a smart gardener is to understand the implication of these seasons on the goals you’re trying to set.
The Qur’an tells us how Prophet Yusuf ‘alayhi’l-sal?m (peace be upon him) understood that the 7 years of prosperity that Egypt was going through will be followed by 7 years of drought. Hence, he set up goals on how to manage Egypt’s resources to survive the drought years.
Being aware of the cyclical nature of the economy makes you more in tune with reality and not set your goals up for failure.
2. The Business/Professional season: Is your business/career going through a period of rapid expansion/growth or stagnation/decline? Understanding your business/professional season of life helps you decide which goals you should focus on for the upcoming year.
As a business should you focus on hiring, building systems and processes OR cutting costs and developing products? Similarly, as a professional, should you focus on leading those important projects at work or dusting your CV and upskilling yourself with new skills for your next career move.
The season that your business/career is going through should inform what type of goals you set up for yourself.
3. Your Human Life Season: Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Qur’an:
“Allah is the one who created you from weakness, then made after weakness strength, then made after strength weakness and white hair. He creates what He wills, and He is the Knowing, the Competent. (Qur’an 30: 54)
When I was in my 20s, I read a powerful book that made me appreciate the different stages that are coming up in my life. It was called “The Seasons of a Man’s Life” by Daniel J. Levinson. It describes the different stages of a man’s life and what are the main objectives of each stage in one’s life.
Simply understanding what stage of life you’re in, can help you determine the goals that you set for yourself. For example, when you’re in early adulthood (pre 30 years old), you might want to focus on getting a degree, making career choices and marriage choices. Once you hit your 30s, you may want to focus on commitments related to family, and personal/professional achieving, etc. Moreover, you might be going through some specific circumstances that may not be conducive for certain goals, e.g. you’re going through a divorce or cancer treatment.
The above made me understand and appreciate the hadith of Prophet Muhammad ?allall?hu ‘alayhiwasallam (peace and blessings of All?h be upon him) that said: “Take advantage of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your illness, your riches before your poverty, your free time before your work, and your life before your death.” [Shu’ab Al Iman]
Acknowledging that there are appropriate goals for each stage in life – makes it more likely for you to achieve those goals than trying to be foolish and go against your natural strength and human life cycle – thus feeling incompetent when not successful.
Understanding the above seasons cannot be underestimated. Moreover, from another angle, they help explain how sometimes when you set a goal and for some reason, you’re not able to achieve it, they may be nothing wrong with your ability to achieve the goals – but it’s simply not the right season for it. This understanding takes away a lot of ‘stress’ and ‘depression’ when things are not achieved according to our own timelines and makes you more conscious of focusing on ‘being ready’ for the goal to be achieved vs. achieving the goal itself (a simple example to illustrate the point: you set up a goal to be married; instead of saying “I want to be married by age of X”…a gardener mindset would be “How can I be “marriage-ready” so when I meet the right person, I’ll be ready for this next big move in my life).
Step 3: Sharpen the process
A gardener has to follow a specific process if they want to make their garden a reality. Not following the process or skipping some steps could mean the end of their gardening aspirations. The more the gardener focuses on the process, the more likely they are to achieve their gardening intentions.
Similarly, when setting up goals, I advise my coaching clients to set up ‘process goals’ vs. ‘achievement goals’ and focus on optimizing the process vs. worrying about achieving certain goals. Here’s the difference:
Achievement Goal: I want to memorize the Qur’an in 5 years.
Process Goal: I want to memorize 1/2 a page a day for 3 days a week.
Achievement Goal: I want to lose 20lbs in 12 months
Process Goal: I want to run for 30 mins 3 days a week.
Achievement Goal: I want to be a published author in 1 year.
Process Goal: I want to write 500 words a day.
Why is this important?
Achievement goals turn the goals into a matter of success or failure; either you achieve it or don’t achieve it. Whereas process goals, turn the goal into a habit/routine that if you stick to it would eventually help you achieve the very goal you’re trying to achieve.
Moreover, process goals tap into the power of ‘making progress’ and feeling the success momentum of you taking concrete steps towards your goals vs. achievement goals that feel like a ‘mirage’ you may never achieve.
Also, if for some reason you’re not seeing progress – you’ll question the process vs. questioning the goal itself. This happens a lot with people who want to memorize the Qur’an or learn Arabic. If they are not able to memorize the Qur’an or learn Arabic, they feel bad about it and usually give up. If instead, they focused on process goals, they’ll question the approach they are taking to memorizing Qur’an/learning Arabic and try a different process to see if it works better for them.
Step 4: Detach from the results
You’ve set powerful intentions, you’ve planted your intentions according to your season of life, and you’ve sharpened your process – congratulations, you’ve now fully “tied your camel” as the Prophetic saying goes. Now comes the next part of the hadith, “trust in God”.
What this means is that you detach yourself from the fruits of your labor and genuinely believe that your success can come only from Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He).
Allah subhanahuwata’?la (glorified and exalted be He) reminds us in the Qur’an:
“And have you seen that [seed] which you sowIs it you who makes it grow, or are We the grower?” (Qur’an 56: 63-64)
For many people steeped in Hustle culture and traditional goal-setting framework – this is a hard pill to swallow “What do you mean detach from results!? I’ve put SO much effort into this, I better get results”.
This is where spirituality and true tawakkul (trust in Allah) differentiates those of Barakah Culture vs. Hustle Culture; we work hard as if everything is under our control yet at the same time, we completely trust that results and the fruits of our labor is in Allah’s subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) hands.
The beauty of detaching ourselves from the results is that our heart stays calm and sincere with all the ups and downs of trying to achieve our goals. If we achieve our goals, we give thanks. If things don’t go our way, we are patient seeking the reward from Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) for the beautiful intentions we’ve set for the goals.
Moreover, this approach makes us truly connect with Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) on a deeper level with our daily supplications. We’ll start making daily supplications for the goals we’re trying to achieve and turn our goals into spiritual quests.
Just think of a gardener, who sets the intention of planting an oak tree, chooses the right seeds and season, focuses on the process of tending for the tree, then supplicates sincerely to Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) to make his/her tree a reality – what spiritual state would that person be as the days/years go by (whether the tree grows or not) and what reward this person will get from Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) for showing total dependence on Allah subhanahuwata’la (glorified and exalted be He) for a goal that’s in Allah’s Hand.
Your whole experience with goal setting changes; instead of being a stressful/hustle culture endeavor; it becomes this meaningful, spiritually-driven approach that attracts Barakah & success in this life and the next – beyond your imagination.
Step 5: Seek Barakah
Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:The Prophet(?) said, “While a man was walking through a barren land, he heard a voice coming out of a cloud saying: ‘Irrigate the garden of so-and-so.’ Thereupon the cloud drifted in a certain direction and discharged its water over a rocky plain. The streamlets flowed into a channel. This man followed the channel until it reached a garden and he saw the owner of the garden standing in its center, working with his spade spreading the water (changing the course of the water). He asked him: “O slave of Allah, what is your name?” He told his name, which was the same that he heard from the cloud. The owner of the garden then asked him: “O slave of Allah, why did you ask my name?” He replied: “I heard a voice from a cloud which poured down this water saying: ‘Irrigate the garden of so-and-so.’ I would like to know what do you do with it.” He said: “Now that you asked me, I will tell you. I estimate the produce of the garden and distribute one-third of it in charity, I spend one-third on myself and my family and invest one-third back into the garden.” [Sahih Muslim]
We always think of achieving our goals – but how many of us think of what to do with our goals once we achieve them.
Let’s say you did memorize Qur’an, or got that promotion, or passed that exam… what will you do with the results/fruits of that success?
The above story illustrates that the best use of success is to ‘reinvest’ that success in what brings benefit to you, those around you, and society at large.
This is going back full-circle to setting powerful intentions – and why you set off on this journey of achieving your goals in the first place (or planting the garden).
If the purpose was to simply fill your belly or feed your ego, you’ll find that the goals you achieve will lose its meaning after a while. But if the purpose was to truly please Allah sub??nahuwata’?la (glorified and exalted be He), you’ll find that the goal becomes a blessing for you and propel you to achieve other goals for yourself and those around you.
Step 6: Plant for the long term
As you set off to achieve your goals in life, keep focused on gardening those activities that would matter in the hereafter:
“And whatever thing you [people] have been given – it is [only for] the enjoyment of worldly life and its adornment. And what is with Allah is better and more lasting; so will you not use reason?” (Qur’an 28: 60)
Yes, it’s great to achieve all those goals and awards of life – but weighing this appropriately helps you stay focused and not distracted with worldly goals that won’t mean much after we die.
This doesn’t mean we should neglect ‘worldly goals’ but it’s trying to focus our worldly goals on things that have an impact and that would last beyond our lifetime.
Anas ibn Malik reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “If the Final Hour comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.” [Al Adab Al Mufrad]
Mohammed Faris is an international coach, author, speaker and founder of The Productive Muslim Company and author of “The Productive Muslim: Where Faith Meets Productivity.