Ideas and inspiration for efficient living.

Going on maternity leave!

I will be taking a break from blogging for a few months. I haven’t been doing it long, and I’m sorry to be going on hiatus so quickly. The reason is simple: I’m now 6 months pregnant with my third baby and I’m utterly exhausted. It’s not going to get any better until I give birth, and then I’ll be living on interrupted sleep with a newborn for a while after that.

I really wish I was supermom who could tend to my kids, feed my family healthy food, keep a clean home, exercise, and pursue my own interests, all while being pregnant, but it doesn’t look like this is who I am. It’s better to accept it than to fight it!

The ¬†experience so far has shown me a better vision of where I want to take this blog and I will need more time and energy to get it to where I want it to be. I love writing for my few and precious followers, but I’m aiming big and I want to do it right. I just can’t take my blog to great heights with the energy I currently have.

So consider this my maternity leave notice. ūüėČ

Thank you for reading and look for a relaunch probably within the next year!


Menu planning challenge – Results

Eight weeks ago, I challenged myself to follow a set meal plan and stay within budget for my grocery shopping for the first time in months. You can read about it here.

The results are in! For the first half, I went over my February monthly budget, simply because I started after the first week (so I just followed my plan for the remaining 3 weeks). I wasn’t very successful, but I expected the second month to be better, because a lot of the way I shopped changed.

For the second half of the challenge, I only went over by 13$. It think that is excellent! We have plenty of food and the menu is varied enough that we don’t get bored.

One major money saver I have found is to make one trip at the beginning of the month to buy non-perishable items at the cheapest grocery store I know. This is the only store I shop at that carries all kinds of junk and convenience foods, so the fact that I only go once a month saves me the “extras” that I ended up buying on impulse before.

I started buying more organic produce, such as apples, pears, bananas and lettuce. They are usually the same price as conventional, so they didn’t impact my budget.

I switched from canned to dry beans, they are at least 4 times cheaper.

Instead of buying fresh-baked white French bread to eat with soup, I make my own in my bread machine and make it with whole-wheat. It’s time I put my bread machine to good use!

I make dessert less often, usually no more than once a week, so I am saving on sugar, even though I wasn’t using that much already. We eat dried fruits or applesauce instead and no one minds!

I picked up my first order of organic beef this week. I ordered 1/2 beef with family, so we got a good price per pound and the cost is about equivalent to the meat I buy at the conventional butcher.

I’m also about to join an organic coop, and I will save on everything organic from flour to dried fruit. I can’t wait for a spot to open so I can join!

I’m saving time on my weekly menu planning. My lists are already made, so I look at my pantry and write down what is missing.

I think all the time I put in planning in January/February was worth it, both financially and time-wise. Because of the coop, I’ll be able to afford more organic because it will cost the same as conventional.

I’m pretty happy about the changes our family is making. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s already better!

What are you doing right now to move toward healthier and thriftier eating? 


Figuring out who you are to be the best you can be

Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Do you know why you behave certain ways, why you react to various events the way you do?

Being the analytical person that I am, I’ve been asking these questions about myself for a long time. Wanting to be the most efficient person I could be, I wanted to know how I operated and why.

Today I’d like to share with you one tool that has really helped me define who I am. It has led me to focus my energies on my strengths and better understand and accept my weaknesses.

This tool is the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI). A plethora of websites are devoted to it, but to get your started, here are links to an informative site, The Myers & Briggs Foundation and to a free online test. Ideally, one would get tested by a certified professional, but if you want a basic overview first, a free test can be a useful starting point.

MBTI uses 4 categories of preferences (or dichotomies):
1. Extroversion (E) vs. Introversion (I)
Simply put, extroverts get their energy from opening up to the world while introverts recharge by looking into their inner world.
2. Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (I)
Do you take information at its face value, or do you interpret it, adding meaning to it?
3. Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F)
Rational, logical decision-making vs. involving feelings and other people’s perceptions to make decisions.
4. Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P)
Planning before acting, uses deadlines, timetables vs. a flexible outlook, planning as you go.

Once you take a test and figure out where you are on the spectrum, you can read the definition for you 4-letter type (for example, INTJ).

All the members of my family and a few friends have taken a MBTI test, and we’ve all been pretty amazed at how accurate and insightful it is. Of course, each person is unique and no one fits 100% into a predetermined profile.

Knowing which type you are can help bring your strengths to light and help you highlight them even more. When I found out I was an INTj (small J because it crosses over into P some days for me), I realized that Intuition is my strong suit. I know certain things without really knowing how I know them… just not in a psychic kind of way! I simply know how some things work or should work, then I research the subject and lo and behold, it is that way, if that makes any sense for an explanation!

Using this tool can also pinpoint your weaknesses so you can improve on them, or at least understand them better. My type is known for its social awkwardness. I always wondered why it was so hard for me to know what to do in social situations. Why say “How are you?” only to get a half-hearted “Yes”? Why talk about the weather when it’s so pointless? Once I knew this aspect of my personality, I started working on my social skills. I bought a book called How to Talk to Anyone and started applying its principles. I’m still no social butterfly, but at least, less people find me rude now!

Have I piqued your interest enough for you to take a test?

What MBTI are you and how have you used it to be the best you can be?

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The power of personal vision

Earlier this month, I posted about the danger of complacency and how to remedy it via legacy work.

I discovered Scott Neeson’s story while thumbing through Reader’s Digest in a waiting room last December. I was very moved by his story, so I am sharing it with you now.

Here is the “About” description from his foundation’s website:

It’s been seven years since Scott Neeson first set foot in Cambodia, and six since he moved to Phnom Penh. He originally came to Cambodia as part of a five-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, but found his life changed by the tableau of Steung Meanchey, and the desperate circumstances and unlikely courage of some of the country’s most impoverished children.

After a 26 year-career in the film business, including tenure as president of 20th Century Fox International, where he oversaw the release and marketing of several of the top films of all time ‚Äď ‘Braveheart,’ ‘Titanic,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘X-men’ – Scott left the industry to establish and personally oversee Cambodian Children’s Fund as Executive Director.

What is Steung Meanchey? It’s a massive dump where children gather various recyclables to sell in exchange for a bowl of rice. Many of these children are orphans.

Work conditions are treacherous. Cambodian garbage disposal laws are largely uncontrolled, so it’s not rare to find toxic chemicals, body parts, used syringes and aborted fetuses in the piles of refuse. Garbage truck drivers are careless and an average of 24 children are run over and killed each year.

This is the injustice that Scott Neeson saw on his backpacking trip that forever changed his life and ignited the fire of his personal vision.

He sold all his belongings, moved to Cambodia and begun the Cambodian Children’s Fund. His charity work provides landfill children with food, clothing, housing, education and much more. He gives them hope for what would have been a hopeless future.

So what does he have to say about leaving the jet-set lifestyle, the high income, the prestige all behind?

“There is a contentment now and a fulfillment that I would never get anywhere else. I’m not sure if it’s happiness — I don’t know how you define happiness — but there’s a knowledge now that what I’m doing is right and what I was meant to do.”

Neeson returns a couple of weeks per year to Hollywood to fundraise among the showbiz crowd. After a week, he can’t wait to return to Cambodia. I think we can safely say that he’s found his higher purpose.

What ignites your personal vision?


Housekeeping and the iron fence

I stink at cleaning. I wish my mom had passed on her housekeeping genes to me, but unfortunately, they skipped a generation.

I haven’t been a poor housekeeper forever, it began when I had children. Of course, some amount of letting go is to be expected as you add a new person to your family. But even as my kids grew older, I just disliked cleaning so much that even though I had more time, I devoted hardly any of it to making my home cleaner.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy cleanliness. I love it when I visit spotless homes. I also hate clutter, so clutter is not a problem, it’s the dust and grime that is.

After I had my second child, I really let my house go. It was still (mostly) sanitary. But I had zero motivation to bring it up to a better level. I figured, I stink at it, so when I can afford it, I’ll pay a housekeeper.

That is until a fateful day last summer. I was in my car, waiting for the road to clear so I could go through. My eye caught a repairman working an on iron fence. He was using a sandblaster to remove the dust before repainting it. The fence went halfway around an apartment building, it was tall and it had MANY rungs.

My first thought was that the cost to pay this man for all the work he was doing to restore this fence must be much higher than entirely replacing the fence with a PVC one that didn’t need repainting… In my mind, it was a poor efficiency ratio.

I also wondered, why go through all the trouble anyway? It’s just a fence. What a waste of time. Until it occurred to me that if this fence remained all rusty, it would be a massive piece of ugly metal. And if everything else around the apartment building was left to itself, it would make the whole surroundings ugly. It would not make people want to live there very much.

Here is thing: beauty is attractive. Order is welcoming.

Then I thought of my house… Was I making sure that it was pretty and orderly? Could I do a better job taking care of it? I knew the answer.

So what did that iron fence change in my life? My house isn’t sparkly clean because I have young children. But I make a conscious effort almost everyday to do something that will make it cleaner and more inviting. I’ve stopped using the excuse “I stink at cleaning” and replaced it with “It’s a privilege to care for my house to make it beautiful and orderly.”

Is there something that motivates you to keep a clean home?



Have you ever heard of boundaries in relationships?

That concept improved my life greatly in the last two years.

Boundaries define where my person begins and ends and where another person begins and ends. It’s like a bubble or invisible circle around each person that determines a person’s rights.

Boundaries determine who and what you let into your life.

I believe a vital part of efficient living is to be emotionally healthy. Boundaries help achieve emotional health.

The whole point of boundaries is to respect yourself, to teach others how to respect you and to respect others.

Let me give an example: let’s say you have a dear friend who is chronically late, no matter what. I’m not talking fashionably late, I mean 30 minutes late every time you meet. You love this friend, but you are tired of wasting your time waiting for them. You have missed parts of events or entirely missed events because you waited for that friend in order to leave.

Time is precious and you like to use it wisely. Applying a boundary would involve kindly talking to your friend about their tardiness and how it makes you feel. You would give them a few chances to be on time. If they still show up late without making an effort, you would tell them that next time you will give them 5 minutes past your meet-up time and if they are not there, you will leave without them. And you do exactly that.

The point is not to hurt them. It is simply to establish the value of your time, teaching them to respect the schedule you set together. That is setting a boundary.

Boundaries are always about what you can control. In the above example, you cannot force the other person to be on time. You cannot control their feelings if they are hurt when they show up late and you already left. You are only responsible for your own person and actions.

Applying boundaries is not always easy. Today I had to establish a strong boundary towards some people I really care about. They will most likely be hurt by my boundary. However, my emotional and family health come first. I did not make the decision lightly, and I knew it was the right thing to do.

Are you good with setting boundaries for yourself?


Contentment is wrong

How’s that for a catchy title?

We all know what the good kind of contentment is: being thankful for what you have, appreciating your current state and resources, being happy and satisfied.

So what about the wrong kind of contentment?

Have you ever been a witness to an injustice, been moved to do something, and then done nothing? You rationalized. “Well, that’s the way life is.” And you went your merry, contented way.

This is complacency. We have all been guilty of it at some point in our life.

Today I want to challenge you to come out of your complacency.

I would like you find something that stirs you to the core and do something about it.

I’m not asking you to donate to every cause that pops up on the news or to every beggar on the street.

I’m asking you to find that ONE thing that you know deep inside that you have to do something about.

I believe that we are not here on earth just for ourselves, we are here to benefit others as well. I believe that each one of us has a stirring in our heart for some injustice in the world and that if we set our mind to it, we can turn that injustice into justice for a few, or even for many.

This is what I call legacy work. I borrow the term from Chris Guillebeau, (I don’t know if he coined it himself). It is, in my opinion, the most essential part of living an efficient life.

My legacy work is orphan care and adoption advocacy. When I was eleven years old, I was deeply moved by a documentary about Chinese orphanages. The black and white images of cribs lined up together, sickly baby girls and overwhelmed nurses never left my mind.

I cannot not do anything to care for orphans and help them find a family.

So what moves you?

Drug addicts? Single mothers? The homeless? Minority groups? World hunger? Human trafficking?

Will you get out of your complacency and do something? What will you do?


How do you turn a crappy day around?

A crappy day makes you want to search for the fast forward button. It makes you feel like you could have done without that 24 hours.

I had a crappy day today. I got up on the wrong foot because my children drove me nuts the day before (and the day before that). I knew that my hopes of a better prognosis for today were dim, considering the clingy, screaming, ill toddler was only feeling slightly better after a long night’s sleep.

I was moody and resentful. Spending hours stewing is about as inefficient as it gets!

Midmorning, the thought came to me that I didn’t have to feel that way, that I could choose my mood and make my day a little better, at least for my own mental health.

But I felt stuck. I was knee-deep in a swamp of sticky, negative thoughts. How could I get out?

I wondered, “What if on my moody days, I had some sort of pivot, some thought or action that made me consciously turn the day around?”

Have you ever felt that way? A day when you wished you could just press the reset button and start afresh? Do you have an effective pivot?

I’d like to tell you that I found my mine, but I think it will require some searching.

Could it be…

A phrase written on a strategically placed piece of paper or on a file on the computer?

A physical action, a salutation to the sun of sorts or 5 minutes of meditative breathing?

An inspirational reading bookmarked for easy reference?

I’d like to hear your thoughts. What kind of pivot would work for you on a crappy day?

P.S. My day did get better mid-afternoon. A peaceful nature walk in falling snow with the boys did the trick for me. I just wish it could have happened earlier!



There is a saying that goes, “Refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

I think it’s fair to say that all of us have been offended or hurt by someone at some point and have been resentful toward that person.

Forgiveness is not just a religious concept. Research has been done on this topic and it’s become a well-accepted view that being resentment-free leads to a healthier and less stressful life.

The layman’s definition of forgiveness that I had always heard was “to choose never to use the offence against the other person again.” Forgiveness becomes a matter of choosing how to treat a person.

But have you ever forgiven someone in the above sense, and found that when you remember the particular hurtful event, all kinds of unpleasant feelings come up? You forgave the person, so how can this be?

I attended a seminar last weekend and heard a different definition of forgiveness: “to remember a hurtful event without emotional pain”.

If the previous definitions are correct, then this means that forgiveness needs to be two-fold: intellectual and emotional.

The conference speaker suggested a method of forgiving a person on the emotional level:

1. Write an accusing letter to the offending party. Put down anything that the person did that hurt you. The point of the letter is to get all the feelings out, without judging yourself for feeling any of them. The other person will never see it, you will burn it once you are done with the process, so you can write whatever you feel the need to write.

2. Once you feel there is nothing left to write, write down “________, I forgive you.” Get rid of the letter (don’t do like me and almost set your bathroom on fire!).

3. Take a new piece of paper and write the person’s name at the top. Then list the ways in which your relationship with that person will be different because you have forgiven them. Keep that paper as a reminder that you have forgiven that person. (You may choose to have no relationship with that person, and that can be a very healthy choice. An abuse victim is in no way obligated to seek reconciliation with his/her abuser.)

I tried the process for myself on the day I heard about it. I can’t say that it was an overwhelmingly emotional event. But there was something freeing in remembering hurtful things a person had done to me (no matter what intent they were done in) and allowing myself to feel what turned out to be a lot of anger.

As I let the anger come up, I realized that it was secretly bottled inside without me even realizing it. Do you know what trapped anger does? It eats you up inside and you don’t even know it. But eventually it seeps through the cracks like an active volcano and it causes vast damage.

This is why I think it’s beneficial for our own emotional health to apply both the intellectual and¬†emotional aspects of forgiveness.

Because in the end, forgiveness sets YOU free.

Have you ever heard of emotional forgiveness? Do you think it’s worth a try?


Menu planning challenge

I’ve been meal planning on a weekly basis as long as I’ve been cooking and I’ve adjusted according to our family size and my culinary inclinations over the years. But for a while I’ve felt that my way of doing it wasn’t working anymore.

My family is growing and the cost of groceries is climbing. I also want to integrate more organic and fair trade products, and they are often more expensive. (But not always, this week I bought organic broccoli and romaine lettuce for the same price as conventional!)

So I wondered, What if I meal plan monthly instead of weekly? Will I save more time and more money?

This week I spent hours working on a new meal plan for my family. It was actually fun, there’s something about those spreadsheets! I’m happy with the result. It’s very detailed. I know how much each meal costs and what ingredients (staples or need to buy) are needed from different stores.

My new meal plan accomplishes the following things:

1. It covers 2 months, or 8 weeks

2. It has variety, but it is not pretentious. It has simple, common ingredients.

3. When I cook, I double the recipe so we eat the same meal twice in a week (I’ve always done it this way). There are no repeats of meals over the 8 weeks, unless it’s a meal we really enjoy.

3. Each month has the same meal cost.

4. It’s balanced (equal meals of beans, lentils, tofu, vegetable-based,¬†eggs, fish, red meat and white meat).

Now the challenge: Will I manage to stay within budget during the next 8 weeks? This was something I was unable to do these last months using weekly menu planning.

I’m certain I will save time. Just this week, I was able to buy all non-perishable items needed for the month in one trip, instead of going each week. Writing down my grocery list will also be quicker, since I made a list of every ingredient for every recipe – I won’t need to thumb through my recipe book.

In 8 weeks, I will be updating to tell you whether I stayed within budget!

What about you, do you meal plan? Do you do it weekly or monthly?

Edited to add (Feb. 16, 2012): How do I evaluate the cost of my meals? 

I’ll use meat sauce and spaghetti as an example:

Ingredients I need:
olive oil
1 onion
4 garlic cloves
2 carrots
2 celery sticks
1/2 pkg mushrooms
1 lb ground beef
2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
1 lb ground beef
salt, pepper, sugar, dried herbs
3 pkg spaghetti

I do not count items that I consider staples. I always have them on hand no matter what: olive oil, onion, garlic, carrots, celery, seasonings.

So I ended up adding:
1 pkg mushrooms – 2.00
2 cans crushed tomatoes – 1.25 x 2 = 2.50
1 can tomato paste – 0.50
1 lb ground beef – 4.50
3 pkg spaghetti – 2.00 x 3 = 6.00

My total for this meal is 15.50$. This batch of sauce makes 3 meals, but that’s an exception to my 2 meal rule.

What about the fluctuating cost of fresh food products?

The short answer is that I don’t really worry about it. My numbers are all rounded and I pretty much know what everything costs on average. I expect slight variations and if an item becomes overly priced, I find a different option!