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Eating Your Spinach

Everyone’s mother has legendarily said something on the order of, "As soon as you eat your spinach, you may have your dessert." Psychologically, it’s a good technique for several reasons: first, your attention is on what you really want, the dessert; second, the situation is constructed so that you expect to have to go through the spinach to get to the dessert and are less resistant to the idea than you otherwise might be; third, something valuable (eating that nourishing spinach) that needs to get done has been incorporated into a program. This is in harmony with New Thought teachings, which encourage us to be positive, to keep our actions in line with our overall intentions, and to have good character.

This is light years away from "No dessert until you eat your spinach", which just sets up resistance. So does "You’re going to sit there until you eat your spinach", which may or may not lead to cold and slimy spinach consumption but will definitely not lead to liking spinach, nor to a favorable feeling toward mother. On the other hand, never disciplining a child to develop good habits leads to an undisciplined and possibly malnourished adult who can’t establish priorities for getting things done. Suppose, instead of mother and child, it is a boss and employee situation, or a minister with a church volunteer.

Now, I happen to like spinach, particularly if it is running with butter or sour cream, preferably with a little cheese as well. Raw, it also makes a great salad. But spinach is not the point here. The real issue is, How do you engineer your life—or anyone else’s—so that you get the important but unappealing tasks done in a timely way? It is all too easy to procrastinate or simply to get sidetracked into something less threatening or something you’d rather be doing. Here, the "As soon as you... you may..." technique can help. You simply tell yourself that as soon as you have performed the task that you find difficult or distasteful, you may have your reward, which can simply be something you’d rather be doing. This admittedly takes a good thirty seconds to think through, so we mostly don’t bother to think about it; we just keep on doing cryptograms or surfing the Web instead of determining an order of procedure. Besides, Mom isn’t around, or the boss isn’t looking, so we get to do whatever we please. True, but will what pleases us for the short run please us in the long run? Our attention needs to be on our ultimate goal, not on the difficulties or unpleasantness we may encounter on the way to reaching it.

Instead of spinach, New Thought author and business consultant Brian Tracy substitutes a frog. In his book, Eat That Frog!, he comments,

It has been said for many years that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Your "frog" is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it now. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment."

Tracy’s real point is that we all get only 24 hours in a day, and we all have more than enough things to pack into those hours, so we need to prioritize, to choose carefully what use we intend to make of our time. That means knowing what our goals are, both for the immediate future and long term. God is forever offering us perfect possibilities, but we have to say yes to them and go after them. Deciding what you really want and setting your intention to go after it can have seemingly miraculous results. "Be bold, and mighty powers will come to your aid." But first, you have to get that spinach eaten, and the less you concentrate on the spinach and the more you concentrate on your goal (the dessert), the smoother things will go for you. It is all too easy to get into a contrarian "I do’wanna eat my spinach" frame of mind. This is concentrating on what you don’t want instead of what you want, and as we know, what we give our attention to grows.

New Thought also teaches that denials must precede affirmations. You may have to state what you do not want in order to get clear on what you do want. It’s not so much that you don’t want to eat your spinach; it’s that you don’t want to be stuck at the kitchen table or to argue endlessly with your mother. What you do want is to enjoy your dessert and go on to other things. In order for that to happen, the spinach needs to be consumed as quickly and painlessly as possible. A card on my desk reads, "How easy, how simple, how absolutely delightful could I make this task?"

This is equally true when you are the mom or the boss: you need to set things up so that the attention is on what is desired. If you are not clear on what you want, you are likely to get what someone else wants. Catherine Ponder has memorably illustrated this with her story of looking out her window and realizing that there were two souped-up sports cars sitting in her driveway, one of which was hers! This was not at all what she wanted or needed, but she had not taken the trouble to determine what she really wanted, and consequently, she had fallen under the influence of her son’s desires and tastes.

So get your mind on that luscious dessert, and get that spinach eaten and out of the way. The person who said that life is short so we should eat dessert first was talking about our priorities.