Thursday, June 6, 2013

Planning for a Parental Leave





Wouldn't it be nice to have a seventeen week leave of absence from work, fully paid? Recently, I was in that very situation. Kind of.

Following the birth of my daughter, Barakah, I took a seventeen parental leave, which I just completed a couple of weeks ago. For those who don't know, a parental leave is a government sanctioned provision (in Canada) that allows fathers to take a leave of absence from their employed position for up to 37 weeks before the newborn's first birthday. The primary purpose of a parental leave is to allow fathers to care for their new-born child, and perhaps to encourage couples to have families.

In addition to caring for the newborn, a parental leave affords the father some free time to engage in other activities. The challenge is to use that free time optimally, lest one become a proof of the Prophetic statement ﷺ, "There are two blessings which many people lose: (They are) health and free time for doing good." (Bukhari) The question then, is what should one spend his/her free time on?

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Stephen Covey's popular time management matrix classifies tasks into four quadrants, which results from crossing two variables: urgency and importance.

The first quadrant represents tasks that are urgent and important - tasks that will have significant consequences if not given attention immediately. For example, for someone who has reached the age of accountability, it is both urgent and important to perform the five daily prayers on schedule.

The second quadrant represents tasks that are not urgent, yet important. These tasks impact one's long-term success; persistently neglecting them can have significant negative consequences or missed opportunities. Getting a medical check-up regularly, for example, may not be urgent, but would be important in the long run in establishing and maintaining sound health.

The third quadrant represents tasks that are urgent, but not important. These tasks have tight timelines that often manipulate people into taking immediate action, even though neglecting them will have no significant impact on one's life. For example, an advertisement for a one-day sale at a clothing outlet may generate urgency in the public to visit the store, even though people have no need for the products being sold.

The fourth quadrant represents tasks that are neither urgent nor important. There is no pressure to get such tasks done, nor is there any benefit achieved by performing them e.g., Surfing aimlessly on the internet. Such tasks are a comprehensive a waste of time.


Typically, with life becoming so busy - even among productive people, people are overwhelmed with tasks belonging to the first quadrant. They are constantly dealing with the present - activities they need to do to stay alive or remain at par. The optimal state, however, is to spend more time on the second quadrant - to prepare, to act preventatively, to plan, to evaluate, to recalibrate, to invest. Devoting time to the second quadrant not only allows a person to grow, it mitigates the occurrence of first quadrant activities. For example, physical fitness, while important in ensuring sound health and vitality, may not be immediately urgent, but it may prevent the occurrence of a future urgent and important health problem.

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Therefore, extended leaves such as a parental leave should be devoted to second quadrant activities - the important but not urgent tasks that we have always been putting off. The fact that ‘work’ - the most time-consuming urgent and important activity – is no longer competing for one's time, it is easier to focus on the second quadrant.

The problem with engaging in second quadrant activities is identifying what those activities are.  The mind works in a weird way: When we are busy, we reflect upon on the important things that we would like to do when we have free time, or fret over all the things we are missing out on. And when we have free time, we enter a state of mental paralysis, and fail to recollect all those second quadrant activities we had in mind when we were too busy to do them. 

The solution to this tendency lies in the following statement of the Prophet ﷺ: "There is no intelligence like planning."  (Bayhaqi)

To get the most out of our free time - to do all those second quadrant activities we've been putting off, we have to plan for them. One aspect of planning is to list all the things we would like to do during our free time in advance, so that when that free time presents itself, we can refer back to that list. A handy smart phone or iPod Touch is useful in recording ideas that present themselves at random moments.

Here's how I planned for my recent parental leave - and this approach can be used for any sort of leave: I created a spreadsheet table with five column headings of broad categories of goals, and listed specific goals/tasks as they came to my mind under the appropriate heading. These headings are the following (accompanied by hypothetical examples):

Grow/develop: Take courses, read informative books, learn new skills, get fit, develop new habits such as praying at the masjid, being more patient, and establishing wirds (litanies), pray tahajjud, memorize Quran, attend Islamic programs

Enjoy: Go on a vacation, enrol in some sporting/recreation program, try out that new restaurant, hang out with friends, read a novel, shop, watch the sun rise/set, recite Quran. 

Give: I.e. Contribute to others. Teach, spend more time with family, volunteer, visit the sick, get to know neighbours.

Create: Start some business, write a book, create a website, build a backyard deck.

Work: I.e., Perform tasks that are not intrinsically motivating to do but are nevertheless important, and are overdue. Do one's taxes, fix the water leak, clean the closet, organize the papers, restock on soap, reformat the computer, etc.

I created these categories to ensure that my activities are balanced - that I give myself time to play, to work on myself, to share and connect with others, and to take care of 'the dirty laundry'. I didn't want to have any regrets over ignoring the different aspects of my life.

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There are two caveats with planning that I came to appreciate experientially through this parental leave. The first, is that despite all the planning one may do, the realization of that plan (i.e., the outcome) is in the hands of Allah, for "Allah is the best of planners" [3:54] , and "Allah has power over all things" [2:148]. Imam Ali even said, “I truly recognized Allah through unfulfilled intentions.” Recognizing Allah’s control over my agenda helped me make peace with my level of productivity. It is as Ibn Ata’iLlah said in his Hikam, “Relieve yourself of worry after you have planned. Do not concern yourself with what Allah has undertaken on your behalf.”

The second caveat, on a more general note, is that we often spend too much of our time worrying about the future and regretting over the past, at the expense of experiencing the present. While it is important to plan and prepare for the future, and learn from and build on past events, it is also important that we not rob ourselves of all that the present has to offer. Hasan al Basri said, “The world is three days: As for yesterday, it has vanished. As for tomorrow, you may never see it. As for today, it is yours, so work on it.” Embodying this paradigm helped me to better cherish those special first months of my daughter's life - which is what the parental leave was really about, after all.

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