Pioneering Australian Muslim psychologist Monique Toohey offers Mspiration sage tips on how to achieve our goals and living a more fulfilling life.
What is it about the new year that gives people the impetus to think about making changes to their lives?
Everyone is so very time focused and I guess for us here (in Australia) when we have this break at the end of the year, because it’s summer, the downtime gives people the chance to think of what they want to see different in their lives. When people are really busy they don’t have time to plan change. I am exactly the same. We don’t want to plan change but that is what needs to be done, we need the planning time. As they say, without the plan you plan to fail. That applies to every single change people want to make intentionally.
Thinking of goals is more fun than planning ways to achieve them.
For a majority of people this is why they don’t achieve the goal. They are visualising, to some extent, what they want to see change in their lives but are not working backwards to find all the steps before that to reach that goal. If we all we are doing is visualising the outcome you will not wake up. The same for new year’s resolutions, people make that new year’s resolution and they think that when they wake up on January 1st they will implement those changes in their life and it just doesn’t work that way.
And that’s for people who at least have a goal they want to achieve. I can imagine how hard it would be for those currently struggling to define what they want.
A lot of the times people often don’t know what they want and the way they frame what they want is in the negative. So people will say “I want too loose weight,” as opposed to stating in the positive which would be “I want to be healthier.” People are more likely to achieve goals if they are positively stated as opposed to being negatively stated. It’s not what you want to see less off in your life, you got to think about what you want to see more off in your life. If they are thinking along what they want to see more in their life they are actually helping their brain achieve that.
Does the goal always comes first followed by the plan?
I often make comparisons to what individuals and what companies do. Companies will invest huge amount of time in planning. If they are going to put on a event, that event doesn’t come about without a lot of planning and meetings on what that event will look like. Consultations and experts also come in to state what is needed to make that event a success. If they spend that time when it comes to planning, then when it comes to that implementation phase it is much more smooth sailing. As individuals we don’t do anything like that, we just daydream. We daydream how much money we want, the type of job and marriage we want but don’t do anything to actually get it.
Do we have to be cold and realistic in setting up that goal?
Goals should be achievable but there is no limitation on what can be achieved except what the mind dictates. It is similar to the person who broke the ten second barrier in the 100 meter sprint. No one thought it was possible, when one person broke it then ten other people broke it that year. There is no barrier to what you can envisage but you have to be, to a certain extent, realistic because everyone has their own limitations from one point to another. You have to look at where you are right now and specify your own present situation and that will give you an idea on where you need to go to.
Successful companies are also big on mission statements. Is that something you also recommend for people in general?
I coach people to do the same-thing for themselves. I actually pulled companies mission statements and even the company values and built a template and help people do it themselves. That is the interesting thing. I found that when people have very little to hope for in their lives, when you put a structure or template in front of them and say create you own vision for your life or your mission statement, it is extremely powerful. I normally say keep the mission statement to three or four words, just like the companies do. It gives people clarity and people achieve if their vision has clarity.
How about the people who are satisfied despite their poor life situation? Some people may even find comfort in it because it gives them a sense of identity.
Most people are comfortable doing mediocrity, that is the truth. People are happy doing the bare minimum. A lot of people can sit fairly comfortably in pain, as in the pain of not achieving their goal. Ironically, as a result of being relatively comfortable nothing changes. So people have to experience a significant amount of pain to go “this is pretty uncomfortable” to make the change. So you can have a goal of being financially stable but if you are comfortable with a bank balance of zero dollars then not much will change for you unless the pain of being in-debt causes you to think “something has to change here because what I am doing is not working in creating my goal of financial stability.” Then people will decide to come back and look at what factors will improve that financial situation, whether it’s their career, business, education or whatever it may be.
Some of the principles you outlined in our chat can also work really well in our spiritual development.
Absolutely. Whether it is praying five times a day, the extra prayers or adding in time for dhikr, people have to be fairly structured to begin with until these things become automatic. To begin with things have to become sort of manual. We have to schedule things that are not there, and this can be for any goal you want to achieve. If you look at the week past, those things that you want to change are not in there because we didn’t schedule them and instead we had other fill-ins. So instead of extra prayers we went shopping because we didn’t make it a priority. So if the coming week needs to be different for you then you will have to schedule them in. So (now) you are not running errands because I will be sitting down and reading the Quran and this is what I will be doing for the next hour. To begin with, planning new events or activities into your week is essential. Things need to be put in the calendar for about four weeks before they become an automatic process where we don’t have to think about it anymore.
So you do recommend people to keep a diary or use their mobile phone calendar and actively schedule these things.
Absolutely. If you remember when we were at school and everyone copped a fair bit of homework, if the teacher or the lecturer said “I am giving you this homework or essay but there is no deadline. In fact, you know what, it doesn’t really matter if you hand it in. Would we do it?
Humans are created with a level of accountability, the same thing with Allah SWT. If we were given the Quran with no concept of hell, would then people strive to do the good or refrain from doing bad things? Probably not, because we are created weak. Humans do need a certain level of accountability to help them keep to task. Sometimes that means asking someone that you need them to hold you accountable whether that is through a mentoring type of relationship or with someone that is well respected. It is no good giving this task to a friend that will say “oh, well next week.” You need someone to remind you of what your vision is in a friendly and diplomatic way. Someone to say “okay, get up, no excuses.” Someone who you may be a little afraid of in a respectful way, to hold you to task.
There are going to be times, despite the well laid plans, where we are going to be disappointed that we are not reaching our goals or vision. Allah SWT has promised us He will test us this world. What do you recommend we can do when we face those challenging times when we will inevitably fall short?
In order to make room for more accomplishments and achievements in our lives we do need to acknowledge and appreciate what we already have. Whether that is the special people in our lives or the beautiful experiences that our lives bring us. We need to absorb fulfillment with what we already have first before looking into what we like to do. So, yes we have a plan but Allah has a better plan for us. For some goals we may need to pray istikhara because we may be unsure if that is in the best interest for us, whether it is a promotion, move to another country or to have another child.
And in a way, blessed things like the prayer and dhikr would, at least subconsciously anyways, imbue some that gratitude and fulfillment.
You know, subhanAllah, there is a research flowing out from schools of psychology in such awe for what gratitude does for the human being. There is a lot of research about gratitude and happiness. People who are more grateful are in general happier. I guess if we are happier, if there is a contentment there then we want less instead of wanting more and more. I think people have to think about what they want and be very specific. People say I just want to be happy but what does that mean?
Pressure. Lots of homework.
I was reading a really interesting book the other day about helping people get what they want, and it was saying that happiness is no longer enough. If people want to improve the situation in their lives they have to go to an elevated emotion like excitement as opposed to just being happy. I think that this is a lovely thing to think about and an interesting emotion to tap into. Ask yourself what brings you excitement as opposed to what brings you happiness? The difference between those two is a level of energy. If you want to shift something in your life with a good positive energy behind you, then you are more likely to get it.
Monique is a Consultant Psychologist and Owner/Manager of the private psychology practice, Nasihah Consulting in Melbourne, Australia. For more information, click here.
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