Inspiration Kindled

5 ways to get the most out of your time

By March 26, 2016 Wisdom

Time management is one of those things I am constantly striving to improve.  For one thing, I’m very passionate about planning – far more so than I am about the actual doing, to tell the truth.  Case in point: this blog.  I’d like to post two, three times a week, and I have those posts all plotted out.  But so far I’ve managed only about one weekly post.  Like everyone else, I’m a work-in-progress, and hopefully going to improve that record soon.

Time management is one of many things I think most of us will never truly perfect, and to some extent, we all have to learn to live with that.  More often than not unexpected things happen, we just feel lazy, or our priorities change.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.  To that end, here are some of the best tips I’ve picked up over years of striving for improvement, as well as a few things I’ve figured out for myself.

1. Personalize your prioritization

I’m not going to go on about the benefits of prioritizing in and of itself, but I think it’s important to recognize that just like every individual learns differently, different people need to prioritize differently, too.  For some, getting smaller tasks out of the way is more beneficial, but others might do best to tackle larger, more daunting projects first.  Sometimes figuring out what methods are suited to you takes some trial and error.  For instance, I love the idea of assigning a chore to each day of the week, but in practice, I’ve found it’s better to lump chores into one or two days, because I gain energy from one activity that helps me to tackle another – even those I find least pleasant.

I also like the prioritization method Stephen Covey preaches in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  He talks about the necessity of recognizing the difference between tasks that are important versus those that are urgent.  Most people spend too much time on urgent tasks (such as answering the phone,) Covey claims, when it’s more effective to focus on those that have high importance.  Of course, what’s most important in our lives is a question each individual must answer for themselves.

2. Give yourself some credit

It sounds too simplistic, but I’ve found that feeling good and feeling good about myself lead to greater accomplishment.  To be more specific, if my productivity is good one day – or even for one hour – I feel motivated to tackle even more.  In order to capitalize on that, I don’t just make to-do lists.  I make lists of things I’ve done.

I almost never finish my entire to-do list by the end of each day, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t accomplished a lot.  Sometimes I’ll do different things, or extra things.  Sometimes I do something I put on the list for the next day just because I felt like it, or felt like getting it out of the way.  And there are always little things we do automatically that go unacknowledged.  I don’t put feeding, clothing, reading to, and playing with my daughter on my to-do list, but it’s a big part of my day, and the most important part!

Take some time at the end of each day to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished, and I bet you’ll find yourself feeling much better about your productivity than if you merely counted the number of items you did (or didn’t) do on your list.

3. Let go of excuses

“There’s no way I’ll get anything done in 15 minutes.”  “Right after I beat the next level on ____.”  “I’m just too tired today after dealing with X.”  Sound familiar?  These are only a few of the things I tell myself on a fairly regular basis to avoid doing tedious, unpleasant things like vacuuming or making a phone call or sometimes even working on a post for this blog.  But at the end of the day, it feels much worse to have accomplished so little (and have extra to do the next day) than it would to push through and get some things done.

One of the most helpful things I learned while working in mental health was the maxim do the next right thing.  Just ask yourself: What’s the most important thing I could be doing right now?  Decide to see how much you can accomplish in whatever time you have, and you’ll be surprised at how much mileage you achieve.

4. Make use of dead time

I talked about this a little in a past post on parenthood, but I think everyone can benefit from being aware of ways to squeeze more use out of periods of dead time – those pesky minutes we all spend waiting in lines or making long commutes, for example.  Maybe you do need that time to unwind and do nothing – or play a mindless game on your phone – and that’s absolutely valid.  But if you’re feeling up to it and circumstances permit, it’s often possible to knock out a few emails or finally listen to that book (or lecture!) on tape.

5. Be ready with some motivation

It sounds ridiculous, but when it comes time to de-clutter a room, I still hear that “clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere…” song from Barney in my head.  Yes, the big purple dinosaur.  But the fact of the matter is, that works for me.  That idea I first learned as a child of challenging myself to get as much done as quickly as possible is still one of the best ways I can motivate myself to clean.

What motivates you to achieve your goals?  Maybe it’s pictures – mental or physical – of what you ultimately hope to achieve.  Maybe it’s the dream of success, or some upbeat music that puts you in the mood.  Maybe you need to push through a little harder, or maybe it’s time to step back and take a break.  Whatever it is, having a few personalized tricks to pull out of your proverbial hat when you’re tired or overwrought or just not feeling it is absolutely essential.


Whether you find these tips useful or not – and I really hope you do! – I hope this post has inspired you to take a closer look at how you’re spending your time and find ways to make sure those minutes are making you happier and more productive 🙂

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What I’ve Been Reading: Uprooted

By March 16, 2016 Books

I have a couple nonfiction books I need to write about soon, but this novel was so engaging I just had to write about it first!

Uprooted Cover

I stumbled across Uprooted by mistake while searching for the author of the last novel I reviewed, Jephte’s Daughter – both authors share the name Naomi.  Although it wasn’t at all what I was looking for at the time, the cover intrigued me enough to read about it further, and the summary was so interesting I immediately put it on hold.  By the time it was automatically checked out to me, I couldn’t recall the book at all, but I wasn’t reading any other fiction at the time so I dived right in with no expectations.  It’s rare for a fiction book to appeal to me quickly – I tend to need time to get to know the characters in order to be hooked – but this fantasy novel had me engaged from the very first chapter.

What’s It About?

Although this is not a young-adult novel, Uprooted follows the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Agnieszka.  She lives in a small village that’s under the protection of the Dragon, a mysterious wizard who is notorious for claiming a girl from the villages every ten years.  Everyone Agnieszka knows expects her best friend, Kasia, to be the one chosen, and all are surprised when it’s Agnieszka herself instead.  The Dragon is not the rapist Agnieszka expects, but he is cold, insulting, and unapproachable.  He begins to teach Agniezska magic to both their distaste, which proves to be especially useful when the wicked wood that threatens to overtake the land and all its people launches a fierce battle against their kingdom.

Three Things I Liked About It:

  1. The antagonist of this novel isn’t a person, it’s a forest.  “The wood” is mysterious and intriguing and genuinely creepy, and it’s story – which you learn towards the end of the novel – sets everything in a new light.
  2. This is one of the most unique fantasy novels I’ve ever read.  This isn’t some variation on the typical fantastical fare: no actual dragons, no elves or giants or mermaids or dwarves.  It’s something entirely different, and refreshingly so.
  3. There is romance here, but it’s my favorite kind: a sprinkle of salt to flavor the story rather than a main ingredient.

What I Didn’t Like:

The characters might have been further developed.  For instance, the Dragon is indubitably one of the most intriguing characters of the novel because he’s rude, and irredeemably so.  I just wanted to know more about why.  Unlike many books I enjoy, this book is less heavy on character development and relationships and focuses more on plot, with characterization being executed in a subtle way that still works somehow.  The book would have been ridiculously long if these details were drawn out any more than they were, but it might have added an extra something.


If you’re in the mood for something engaging and fast-paced and entirely original, this is the book for you.  There’s something stylistically about this novel that I really admire – it’s very different from the way I write, but wholeheartedly wonderful.  If you enjoy fantasy at all, you want to give this one a read.

About The Author:

After reading her three-paragraph author bio (as well as the novel itself,) I’m a fan of Naomi Novik.  This woman is a queen of geeks.  She’s involved in the Organization for Transformative Works – which is responsible for the Archive of Our Own among other things – and writes fanfiction in addition to original work.  Plus she has a daughter named Evidence, which is maybe the coolest name ever.  Ms. Novik is most famous for an earlier fantasy series containing eight books, the Temeraire series.

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Healthier Microwave Chocolate Chip Cookie

By March 9, 2016 Recipes

When I first discovered this single-serving microwave chocolate chip cookie, I immediately began experimenting with substitutions to try to make it healthier.  Because eating a huge chocolate chip cookie is great, but when that cookie is close to guiltless?  That’s my personal idea of heaven 🙂

For me, healthy is less about reducing calories and more about using ingredients that are nutritious and not merely empty calories.  Of course, you still want to maintain the integrity of what you’re making – it has to taste good, have a reasonably pleasant texture, be recognizable as what it is, etc.  I tend to have some go-to solutions for making substitutions in desserts like this, and they didn’t fail me here.  I substituted nut butter for the fat, because it contains fat as well but a healthier kind and also adds nutrients and protein.  I subbed out half the sugar for stevia.  After much trial and error, SweetLeaf is my stevia brand of choice.  One packet is only equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sugar, but that’s okay because I don’t mind things a little less sweet.


I almost never eliminate sugar completely, both because it lends to a better flavor and because it does a lot in baking besides merely making things sweet.  Finally, I used white whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour.  White whole wheat flour is my go-to: I don’t even keep standard all-purpose flour in my kitchen.

You can boost the nutritional value even more by choosing dark chocolate chips over milk or semi-sweet and adding nuts.  If reducing calories is one of your goals, try subbing some of the flour for quick oats (I did this once for one tablespoon, and it turned out well) and/or choosing a lower-calorie milk, such as unsweetened almond milk – another of my baking staples!

The cookie I photographed is made with almond butter, but if you don’t care for almond butter or want the most authentic flavor, I recommending using peanut butter OR half butter/half nut butter.  However, be aware that what you choose could potentially require you to adjust other ingredients.  When I made this cookie with natural peanut butter (no butter), the dough did not come together, and I had to add a little extra milk until it did.  But the results were still super yummy.  You might have to do the same to account for differences in the consistency of the nut butter – some have added oil (and sugar,) some are thicker or runnier.

If you want to splurge for the full-calorie version from which this recipe is adapted, check it out here!  I can vouch for the stellar results.


1 tablespoon nut butter OR 1/2 tablespoon nut butter + 1/2 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon brown sugar

pinch of salt

stevia to equal about 1 tablespoon sugar, or 1 tablespoon additional sugar

2 teaspoons milk (+ up to 2 teaspoons more)

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons white whole wheat flour

1-2 tablespoons chocolate chips


In a small bowl, microwave the nut butter and/or butter until melted (about 60 seconds).  Stir in the the sugar, stevia, and salt.  The mixture might already be very thick, especially if you’re using all nut butter.


Stir in the milk and vanilla until the mixture is consistent.


Stir in the flour.  If the dough isn’t coming together and the mixture is dry, add more milk little by little.  Mine looked something like this:


Finally, stir in the chocolate chips.


Dump the dough in the middle of a microwavable plate and press it into the shape of a cookie, making sure the edges are a little thinner than the middle.  DO NOT skip this step – I first baked this recipe right in the bowl, so I can vouch that it’s much better and more authentic if you take the time, trouble, and extra dish to form a cookie shape.


Microwave the cookie for about a minute, adjusting the power of your microwave to reach about 700-900 watts, depending on how done you like your cookies.  I have a 1250 watt microwave, so I use 70% power (875 watts).

20160307_142621 (1)

Devour, preferably with milk.


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The Blessings of Parenthood: Reaching Six Months

By March 4, 2016 Parenting

It’s sincerely hard to believe that my sweet little girl will be six months old on Sunday.  People tell you all your life that time flies, but I don’t think you really understand that until you’re a parent.

Amea newborn 3


My daughter has changed so much in the past six months. She was born five days early at a healthy 7 lbs 6 oz, but she dropped weight quickly and a little too far, down to 6 lbs 8 oz.  She was tiny for so long, wearing the newborn size through two months.  Yesterday, at her 6 month check-up, she had reached the 26 percentile for weight – her highest so far!  And she’s so tall; I never thought I’d be able to say that about one of my children.  She moved from the 42 percentile for height at her 4 month appointment to the 68 percentile!  I’m always sad to pack up one size of clothing and move on to the next, but I know that’s coming up again very soon.

Upon reflection, I think those first few months were the hardest.  It truly does get easier as you go along, or at least it has so far.  Things feel less new and a little less fragile; you get to sleep again and fall into a rhythm that allows you to manage well enough that you get to do things like cook, clean, and eat.

If you’re reading this and you’re one of those mothers that had to return to work, God bless you!  I can’t imagine how that works – I still feel a little like I’m fumbling just to accomplish basic tasks from one day to the next.  Washing bottles is the new normal, and I’ll swear to anyone that’s one thing about having a baby I’ll never miss!

But there are so many things I will miss.  Cuddles and nursing and random odd noises.  Witnessing every new accomplishment.  The abrupt shifts in mood (sometimes!)  Tiny fingers and tiny feet and bright, innocent smiles.


I know so much more now than I new when they decided to release me from the hospital with a tiny, helpless new life to care for, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would pass along to another new mother should I have the opportunity.  So here are, briefly, a few things I would share:

  1. If you read about anything, read about baby sleep – preferably before bringing home the baby! Sleeping babies are not automatic, simple things.  Sleeping babies are miracles, but they’re more achievable miracles once you become informed.  I especially recommend Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, which is research-based and not so much a do-it-only-this-way guide, which is what most books about baby sleep and eating are.  That said, keep in mind that every baby is unique and these sort of miracles tend to take more time than you can rightfully process in your addled, sleep-deprived mind.  You will get there.  Eventually.
  2. DON’T read books about the magic of breastfeeding, particularly if you’re one of those women who aren’t able to nurse or nurse exclusively.  They will convince you that all manner of harm will come to your baby if you don’t feed breast milk until they’re in preschool and beyond, and that this is achievable by pretty much anyone if you put enough effort in.  Even if this herculean amount of effort was actually possible, new moms do not have this kind of energy.  If you can get there, great!  But if you struggle with this – as did I and so many other women I know – do what you can manage and what works for you.  As the kinder books and people will tell you, the most important thing is that the baby is fed.
  3. Prioritize.  You may only have a small amount of time to yourself each day.  Meet your basic needs first, and your family’s, and then if there’s time left, decide what’s most important and urgent.  I’ve never found this skill so important as I do now.
  4. Multi-task.  Yes, most new research will tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be in terms of performance, but this is not the time in your life to maximize performance.  It’s the time in your life to squeeze in a snack while the bottle warms, or chat on speakerphone while doing dishes, or read/play video games/watch TV while nursing.
  5. I know everyone says it, but this is the time to brush up on those mindfulness skills.  Cherish and be present to the fullest extent of your ability in  every moment you spend with your child, because they’re more fleeting than they seem.

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Cheesy Hamburger Hashbrown Skillet – Copycat Hamburger Helper

By February 29, 2016 Food, Recipes


Those of you who have been following along might have noticed that, although this blog claims to be in part dedicated to recipes, I’ve only posted one recipe thus far.  My excuse?  It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the kitchen.  I have at least three or four recipes I’ve thrown together developed since beginning this blog.  But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m really bad at taking pictures.  I also lack the proper tools for taking pictures of food, such as a decent camera and some pretty white dinnerware and the patience to be visually artistic in any way, shape, or form.

But as much as I’d like to emulate some of the amazing established food blogs I follow, I’m just not there yet.  And maybe that’s okay and I shouldn’t let that stop me.  This isn’t a food blog, after all.  It’s a blog dedicated to inspiration… and/or the conglomeration of my insanity.  Or something like that.

So I have two crappy pictures of this recipe.  It’s yummy and easy and nostalgic, at least for me, so I hope you’ll give it a chance despite my lousy presentation.

When I was little, we ate a lot of Hamburger Helper, and I used to complain about it a lot.  Some of the stuff out of those boxes tasted pretty funny, particularly anything with noodles.  But there was one exception.  This glorious variety:

Hamburger Helper

I used to beg for this stuff, and eventually I learned to make it myself.  And then I grew up and realized how much horrible chemical crap goes into those boxes.  As reassuring as it is to know that the cheese sauce is “naturally flavored”, I’d rather have actual cheese, please.  But when I was first married, I made it anyway… just like I used to sneak an occasional cosmic brownie.  Nostalgia is powerful stuff, as are cheese sauce and multi-colored chocolate candies.

Then something dreadful happened.  Hamburger Helper Cheesy Hashbrowns disappeared from the shelves of my local store, and every other store I visited.  And thus I resigned myself to a life without the comfort of those cheesy, potato-y burnt bits that magically materialized on the bottom of my pan… until one morning a few weeks ago, when I was desperate for something quick I could whip up for my husband, who would soon be returning home from night shift and wanting dinner food at 8 AM.  There wasn’t much left in my fridge or my pantry, but from the meager offerings a beautiful idea began to take form.

I have ground beef, I thought.  And potatoes, and cheese, and milk… I know how to make cheese sauce.  So what was stopping me from making chemical-free Cheesy Hashbrowns myself?

Nothing.  Okay, maybe a hungry infant.  But basically nothing.  And so I did.

This recipe involves a few steps more than the box kind.  Cooking the potatoes is the step that takes the longest, and preparing the cheese sauce adds an extra pot to wash.  I promise it is totally worth it.  See how pretty this sauce is?


I love the look and flavor of paprika in this sauce and on the potatoes – it’s hands-down my favorite spice, and the one I use most often – but you can omit it if you like.

*An Important Note About Potatoes*

I’ve made this recipe twice.  The first time I used diced potatoes, and the second time I decided to shred them for a more authentic hashbrown-y feel.  I don’t recommend this.

Shredded potatoes cook much faster, but they take forever to shred – at least with a cheese grater – and if you’re anything like me, you’ll likely cut yourself in the process.  Also, shredding potatoes yourself does not result in the nice matchstick pieces you’ll find in a freezer bag or in your Hamburger Helper box.  It results in a starchy, glumpy mess.  This starchy, glumpy mess will still taste good when cooked, but it adds a lot of excess moisture to the recipe, which means no yummy, crispy browned bits on the bottom of the pan for you.  Which kind of makes this recipe not worth the hassle.  So please be kind to yourself and dice your potatoes nice and small and wait the necessary amount of time for them to cook through and brown in the skillet.  I promise it will be worth it.  Or you could cheat and buy frozen hashbrown potatoes and adjust the recipe a little; I’ll never tell.


4 medium potatoes (russet or Yukon gold), diced to about ½-inch cubes

½ cup diced onion

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1 pound lean ground beef

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup low-fat milk

1-1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese (or another cheese that melts well)

salt and pepper and paprika (optional), to taste



  1. Heat a large, nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add one tablespoon butter.  When butter is hot, add in the onions.  Saute for one minute and then add the potatoes.  Stir potatoes to coat, season to taste (using paprika in addition to salt and pepper if you like,) and then cover pan to allow them to steam as they fry, lifting the lid every few minutes to stir.
  2. Once the potatoes are cooking, melt one tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in one tablespoon of flour to form a roux.  Cook for a minute, whisking constantly, and then begin to add the milk a little at a time, whisking well between each addition.  Once all the milk is added, bring to a boil and cook until slightly thickened, about 3-5 minutes.
  3. Once potatoes are cooked through (taste a piece to make sure), add the ground beef. Cook and stir the mixture until the beef is brown; this may take a little longer than usual as the pan will be crowded.  Season to taste.  When the beef is cooked through, stop stirring and turn off the heat.  Press the mixture against the bottom of the pan, cover, and allow to sit while you finish the cheese sauce.
  4. Add the cheese to the thickened milk mixture a little at a time, stirring until the cheese has melted and you have a sauce of desirable thickness and cheesy-ness . Season to taste, using paprika if you like.  Paprika will lend a beautiful color and a mild smoky flavor to the sauce.
  5. Remove the lid from the skillet and pour the cheese sauce over the beef and potato mixture, spreading as evenly as possible.  Use a spatula to separate a section and lift it from the pan (it may fall apart a little, but should stay mostly intact) to make sure your beef and potatoes have gotten yummily crust on the bottom.  If not, you can return the pan to heat for a short period of time, but be mindful that the food doesn’t burn.

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