Fuel: The end of my Ramadan experiment

13/7/2013 |

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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.  7 - fuel-03She 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 finally…

7 - fuel-03And 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.

Ramadan Mubarak!


  1. MAK

    Well done Graham. I’m really happy it worked out well for you. Hope you join us in the fasting in the future too :).

  2. Uni

    Amazing to read about your experience :). Great advice too. You know, the first 2-3 days are hard for all of us and then it definitely gets better and your body adjusts.

    The challenge probably shouldn’t jump to a month – maybe half a month and then the full challenge :)

  3. Khan

    Congratulations on a successful fasting experiment! Your attitude towards embracing a truly multicultural community is so refreshing to see, thank you for having an open mind, and joining us in our special month – that’s what empathy is all about! Thumbs up to you!

  4. The Creature of Allah

    My Brother in Humanity Wow! I am loving your fasting experience. Thank you for your advice and tips. I am smiling at your advice tip 5 “Change the view”. Muslims do exactly that. We do mini-meditation 5 times a day (Morning, Noon, Late-eveninh, sunset, and Night) to boost us up – we do this via Salah – praying to Allah – which is the 2nd pillar of Islam (so all the stretching is done via praying lol).

    We have to wash our face, arms, feet etc before we pray (known as Wudu/ablution, so we do all the splashing.

    We are also recommended to wash our mouth with a stick called Miswaak, which is so energy lifting

    Thank you once again. For joining us and sharing your experience.

  5. Amin

    Thanks a lot! Loved reading your experience and tips.

    Something also specially connected to Ramadan is the Holy Quran (as the Quran was revealed in Ramadan). It would be great if you have a taste of this living miracle. You may simply search for “makkah taraweeh” on youtube. It will allow you to listen to the Quran, read its translation and witness the remarkable atmosphere of millions of Muslims gathered together near the Kabah.

    Thank you again for sharing your experience!

  6. Khan2

    Nice Read, really impressed.

  7. Aly Balagamwala (@DiscoMaulvi)

    Dear Graham

    Your little experiment was very enlightening as a non-muslim looking into our yearly ritual from the outside and bringing a different perspective into it. The conclusions are fascinating and something muslims can really help to turn this month into a productive one as the muslims of the past experienced it rather than a month of tired,grumpy, hungry people who end up binge eating.

    You stumbled across important sunnah (practices) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in your experiment:
    1) Doing your work in the first half of the day: the Prophet (SAW) prayed to Allah to make the morning a time of barakah (literally blessing but in this context akin to productivity) for his ummah(nation)
    2) he advocated dates as food in the morning and evening meals which are densely packed with nutrients and cautioned against overeating. Quality over quantity
    3) Change the view: Muslims pray 5 mandatory prayers – this is preceded by ablution involving water to cleanse the hands, face, rinsing of the mouth and nose and the feet. This is followed by the prayer,a ritual that includes physical movement as well as recitation of the Quran and specific prayers. This brings the rebooting you talk about through the physical element you discovered and adds in some Mental relaxation that you found in meditation.

    I pray that this experiment of your brings you closer to Islam, which is not only a religion but really an encompassing way of life.

    Best Regards

  8. Saeed Motiwala

    Dear Graham,

    Congratulations. I am glad that you moved from survival mode to success mode in 3 days. Imagine how you would feel at the end of a month! As a Muslim, I look forward throughout the year towards this month of fasting and prayer, as many Muslims have done for over 14 centuries. The combination of physical deprivation and a deliberate increase in good and virtuous deeds for a whole month is a liberating experience. Also glad that you got to know more about Islam, and hope that you continue exploring.

  9. graham

    Hi all,

    wow, I thought I was on top of the comments here, but nope, I was on top of the comments on the OTHER posts! (and on productivemuslim.com as well!). So a few quick (and belated) responses…

    Uni – I hear ya! I think half a month is my next challenge… altho the productivemuslim guys are egging me on to do a full month with them!

    Khan – not that unusual, I don’t think. Just hidden away because the mainstream media ignores it. In my experience there are more reasonable and enlightened people in the UK and USA than there are idiots with closed minds!

    creature of Allah – I think meditation and prayer have very similar positive qualities.

    Amin – Mohammed at Productive Muslim has sent me a wonderful book, actually! all about Islam in general, the history, etc. Right now I guess that’s the book that most people need to read if we’re going to overcome misunderstanding – and yet I’m ashamed to say I’d never thought to buy a book like that myself! just shows you, eh?!

    Aly – well, the others I did indeed stumble across (which I guess shows you how lots of those practices are natural and perhaps even intuitive?) but the dates were a tip I stole from the NHS Ramadan tips guide, so I can’t claim any stumbling across that one!

    Saeed – I will continue exploring – not just Islam, but all faiths. We all owe it to each other to keep exploring, wherever we decide to pitch our tents :)


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