Monthly Archives: February 2013

“In Praise of Side Projects” – Alexander Baxevanis at London IA

Alexander Baxevanis started his talk at January’s London IA with a confession – “I’m addicted to side projects.”

Now, I’ve got some sympathy with Alex’s problem here. What with the job, this blog, London IA, EuroIA, my writing role at FUMSI, editing ebooks for the Guardian, keeping my programming going, writing guest spots for places like TheMediaBriefing, making music, frequent conference appearances and running training days, I’ve got quite a lot of things that could be considered side projects myself. His involved lots of Arduinos and bikes and Arduinos in bikes, and Alex boasted that of all his projects, he’d even actually finished two of them 😉

Alex set out five rules for running a side project:

  1. Find something you want to learn
  2. Find a partner
  3. Shout about it
  4. Keep track of where you are
  5. Don’t get disappointed easily

Alex valued the idea of collaboration in a side project. Find someone with the opposing skills to you, he suggested, and you’ll end up with a better outcome, and both learn from each other. Sometimes people worry about sharing the credit for a project they are passionate about, but Alex suggested that sharing credit was better than getting no credit at all because nothing ever got finished. Having a partner spurs you on to meet deadlines and finish tasks you’ve promised. He also thought a physical space was useful for a project – whether that is the proverbial shed, or a collaborative environment like Hackspace.

Keeping a record and telling people about your projects were also important. By talking about them, you get the dread nagging reminder of people asking how you are getting along with such-and-such, but you also get the serendipity of people recalling you are interested in a topic and suggesting ideas, resources and events to you. I keep track of my projects with a whiteboard in the kitchen – which also means it is a very visible record of whether I am working on the things that pay me or make money, or whether my focus is elsewhere and I am getting behind with things I need to do.

I laughed a lot at one part of Alex’s talk. He said one of the best things about side projects is that they are a great way to learn. If you want to learn HTML & CSS, he said, don’t get yourself something like a Sams Learn HTML in 21 days book, get started by trying to build something you want to build. That way you’ll focus your learning on what you need to know.

I laughed, because when I first started to learn how to make the interwebs work in the 1860s, I didn’t have a computer at home, and a Sams Learn HTML4 in 21 days was exactly what I used to get myself started – writing out example code on paper and then typing it into the work PC in my lunch hour to see if I’d got it right.

But I didn’t really get started until I had a project – to rebuild the Reckless website. Certainly today my efforts to scratch along with Python are based on learning what I need to get my prototypes working, not some great plan to become a Python expert.

One of the questions Alex was asked at the end was whether his side projects actually helped with his work. He explained that as much as he loved his job, it was never going to be “100% of what I want to do” – an advantage that side projects have. And during the talk he’d given some examples of “side projects done good” – the World Wide Web you are reading this on evolved out of a Tim Berners-Lee side project called ENQUIRE which was exploring hypertext, and the 6502 chip which transformed home computing was the result of engineers tinkering around the edges when they thought they could do better than the specifications and ambitions of the company they were working for.

Alex has published his slides and text on Speaker Deck, and Richard Wand has also blogged about the talk.


The final talk at January’s London IA was my amazing colleague Mary Hamilton, with her tale of “Verbs. Zombies. UX.” I’ll be publishing my notes from that next.

London IA ebook thumbnail

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.


Why You’re So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)

Change freaks us out—probably even more than public speaking, but it’s the sort of amorphous issue that we don’t think about because it manifests itself subtly in so many ways. Whether a relationship starts or ends, you’re moving, you’ve got a new job, or you’ve lost someone you love, change—whether it’s good or bad—causes stress. Here’s how it works and how to handle it without losing your mind.

“Change” is a broad term, and it can apply to many things. Perhaps you’re just moving to a new home or starting a new job, or something awful happens like a death in the family. These events may seem black and white, and not necessarily similar, but they all require adjustment in the way you conduct your day-to-day life. These adjustments cause stress, even when they’re positive. Conversely, negative changes can yield positive results. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, which often frightens us. Coping with change well, rather than losing your mind, only requires an adjustment on your outlook and a little evidence of surviving various circumstances. In this post, we’ll take a look at why your brain resists change and how you can actually change that.

What Is Change, Exactly?

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)I’ve been through some pretty big changes in my life, but I’m no professional. To help define the issue of change, and find out the best methods of coping, I consulted relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil:

For our purposes, let’s define change as “a modification to a person’s environment, situation, or physical/mental condition that results in circumstances that challenge their existing paradigms.” What our definition implies is that humans have a tendency to define how their world is supposed to work. Whenever something happens in our personal world or to our own being that is inconsistent with the way we feel the world should be, we encounter change.

Change comes in many forms in our daily lives. Everyone experiences the pains of being young through puberty and later the pains of being old through inevitable medical issues. We get married, graduate from school, switch careers several times, move across the country, get in terrible accidents, lose our parents, discover hobbies we love that we never knew about, and sometimes even achieve our dreams. Even though we can attribute a default emotion (e.g. happy, sad) to many of these broad examples, Roger notes that the event isn’t the only thing that affects how we handle both “good” and “bad” change:

The important thing to keep in mind is that there is a continuum between “positive” and “negative” so not all changes are easily codified as good or bad. In fact, other psychological factors (such as one’s temperament, mood, and global IQ) can affect how a person codifies a change along the positive-negative continuum.

On top of that, the event itself often doesn’t affect whether or not we feel stress. If anything changes, good or bad, stress will probably result:

Any time we are confronted by an event that is inconsistent with our core beliefs, we will likely feel some level of stress. In fact, a long-used psychometric for measuring stress is the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Most of the items on this scale represent a change in a person’s life that is known to lead to some amount of stress. The interesting thing is that many of the items also represent “good” things like dating, marriage, or vacations. In other words, even good change is stressful.

When trying to understand how change affects us, we mostly need to look at three things: 1) the situation itself, 2) our mood/temperament, and 3) how others may affect us. Keep these key factors in mind as we discuss how our brains deal with change and, later, what we can do to override the problems.

Why Change Is So Difficult

Our Brains Expect Certain Things to Stay the Same

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)In theory, change should be simple. When walking down the street, say come to a construction site and need to change your path. By scanning around the area you should be able to find a detour and follow it to get where you want to go. Inherently, this situation shouldn’t cause any stress but our brains offer a number of special quirks that cause us to see things differently. Because we’ve taken the normal path before, we don’t worry that it’ll take us where we want to go. When we run into a roadblock, suddenly information we trusted has broken down. Where does the other road lead? How long will it take? Is it dangerous? What we don’t know tends to scare us, and change creates a lot of things we don’t know. As a result, we tend to act pretty irrationally to try and prevent change, often without realizing it, and make our lives unnecessarily problematic.

While we often fear change when pre-existing information fails us, but the amount of stress can vary greatly. Roger explains:

Both nature and nurture will influence how we form our core beliefs about how the world works and our roles in our respective worlds. When we experience the world or ourselves in a certain way for an extended period of time, we develop core beliefs that make up our paradigm for how life is supposed to be. The experiences we have as children tend to be the most long-lasting and influential because they represent prototypical experiences that future experiences will be compared to and will likely play a key role in the development of our worldview/paradigm for life. Since our brains are still developing, childhood experiences have a greater chance of influencing how future neural connections will develop. Whether good or bad, children tend to adjust better to change since they don’t have as much “legacy material” to overcome when encountering change (i.e. their worldviews/life paradigms are still developing). As we age and our brains become less plastic, we encounter more difficulties processing changes because our paradigms are more ingrained.

The earlier you learned something, the harder it is to change. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a saying for a reason.

We Seek Out People Like Us to Avoid Change

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)Because new information bothers our brains, we tend to find friends and form groups that reinforce our beliefs—whether they’re correct or not. When many people agree, it’s easy to discount the opinions of others in the face of undeniable logic. This occurs because of a phenomenon known as the illusion of asymmetric insight. David McRaney, writer of the blog and book about self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, explains:

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.

This lovely phenomenon gives you cause to discount conflicting information as bias and stick with what you know. Essentially, you attack the possibility of change because you think you know better than everyone else and have the friends to back you up.

We Hate to Feel Like We Wasted Our Time and Effort

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)Sometimes change involves a significant loss, and our brains hate loss. When we invest ourselves emotionally in anything, it becomes harder to change because we don’t want to lose all the time and effort we already exerted. As a result, we have a hard time letting go of a project we know deep down will fail. We also struggle to end doomed relationships because we’re terrible at accepting the whole thing was for naught. In reality, time isn’t wasted but our brains like to see the entire time as a loss rather than just a part of the inevitable conclusion. If you’ve ever played a game of Farmville and struggled to stop, you know exactly how this feels.

A study (PDF) by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that our brain’s desire for loss aversion almost always altered our choices even when our other choice was identical. David McRaney explains the study:

Imagine the apocalypse is upon you. Some terrible disease was unleashed in an attempt to cure male pattern baldness. The human population has been reduced to 600 people. Everyone is likely to die without help. As one of the last survivors you meet a scientist who believes he has found a cure, but he isn’t sure. He has two versions and can’t bear to choose between them. His scientific estimates are exact, but he leaves the choice up to you. Cure A is guaranteed to save exactly 200 people. Cure B has a 1/3 probability of saving 600, but a 2/3 probability of saving no one. The fate of hairlines and future generations is in your hands. Which do you pick? Ok, mark your answer and let’s reimagine the scenario. Same setup, everyone is going to die without a cure, but this time if you use Cure C it is certain exactly 400 people will die. Cure D has a 1/3 probability of killing no one, but a 2/3 probability killing 600. Which one?

Most people chose Cure A in the first scenario and Cure D in the second, but both situations presented were actually the same with different framing. The results showed how quickly we flock to the option that minimizes loss—the one with the least perceived change. Because we’re so opposed to inciting change, logic can go right out the window.

How to Better Cope With Change

Coping with change isn’t that hard. You can’t change how your brain works, but you can use its quirks to your advantage. Basically, your brain likes information it knows and understands and doesn’t like what it doesn’t know. If your brain experiences enough change in a variety of ways, it’ll allow you to operate with the understanding that change is something you can survive and even benefit from. You won’t fear it so much because the information stored in your head provides evidence that fear is unnecessary. Of course, getting to this point is easier said than done.

Accept the Inevitability of Change and Its Resulting Stress

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)Roger suggests a few methods when learning to cope with and better-handle changing circumstances. To start, you have to accept that stress is an inevitable part of the process:

Rewriting your own “source code” is supposed to be hard. It’ll get harder to rewrite over time but if you don’t do it, you’ll eventually be left with a bunch of useless code that can’t run on current platforms. Give yourself permission to feel the change-related distress and all of the associated emotions that come along with it. It sucks but not allowing yourself to process those emotions will prevent you from moving forward. If you don’t process them you’ll have to isolate yourself from all things that represent the “distressing” change just to be able to function.

Think of Change Like a Software Upgrade

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)Roger suggests looking at our lives as an operating system with software titles. As the world changes and our operating system evolves, applications that used to work may not work anymore. As a result, they need to be updated with new code in order to function in a changed environment. The events in our lives may not seem as straightforward as a few new features in Photoshop, but the principles stay the same. Handling a change to the information we use everyday requires work. We’re wired to resist it, but are better off in the long run if we don’t.

Allow Yourself to Freak Out, But Always Consider the Upside

Why You're So Afraid of Change (and What You Can Do About It)Give yourself permission to freak out on your own time and then find ways to move forward positively:

This is the most difficult thing to keep in mind and to put into practice because the psychological distress caused by some changes can make having an optimistic outlook feel like an impossible task. That’s okay. Do all the crying, kicking, and screaming you need to do; then start to seek out ways to make your new situation more livable and enjoyable. Fixating on what was lost as a result of the change will prevent us from experiencing the good things that our new circumstances can bring us. In the case of the loss of a loved one, making the best of the present would mean processing our emotional pain and working on developing an outlook that allows for renewed hope in the future and the possibility of happiness.

After enough regular practice, managing change won’t feel like such a fearful burden. Shifting gears is rarely easy, but it isn’t supposed to be. With practice you’ll get better and it won’t feel like you’re hit with a stress bomb every time your life takes a different turn. The only way the fear and stress will disappear is if you calm down an embrace the unknown.

A big thanks goes out to Roger S. Gil, M.A.M.F.T. for his integral contributions to this post. Be sure to check out his podcast and follow him on Twitter for more.

Photos by red-feniks (Shutterstock), bahri altay (Shutterstock), DrMadra (Shutterstock), oilyy (Shutterstock), Christos Georghiou (Shutterstock), wongstock (Shutterstock), Stuart Miles (Shutterstock), and amasterphotographer (Shutterstock).

3 Little Questions to Help You Deal with Life’s Big Changes | Tiny Buddha

“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” ~Karen Kaiser Clark

Change happens.

It’s often unnoticed, or it may simply be a slight nuisance. It’s sometimes uncomfortable, or excruciatingly painful. Once in a while, it’s life changing.

But it’s also transforming. Sometimes I awake in the morning or I simply look out the window into the woods and I realize I’m not the person I was the day before, or even a moment ago.

That realization brings me such pleasure, to know that I am becoming a better version of me than I was. The newness, the now-ness, the opportunities to continuously morph into who I want to be is, at moments, mind-blowing. I appreciate this sort of change.

Everything changes. But we forget this, constantly. That’s because it’s sometimes downright scary to think about change.

Sure, we like the good changes—we appreciate the little ones and celebrate the big ones. But the bad ones, none of us likes those, however small they may be or even how much we may wish them away.

We become irritated when a construction zone causes us to take another route to work. We get angry when people don’t do what they said they would do. We are deeply pained when people decide they no longer want us in their lives. We grieve uncontrollably and inconsolably, and understandably so.

When I think about it, I realize I am very attached to specific expectations, certain ways of being, and the people I love most dearly.

This attachment, while often pleasurable and a source of such happiness, also causes me to feel discomfort and pain, to act simply out of habit or from fear, and to worry and grieve.

Some changes are big.

One big change in my life has been my first-born leaving home. Do you notice how I phrase this change in the present tense? I am still in the process of changing my reaction to this big change in my life, changing me.

Sure, the physical change happened quickly. She was all packed up and then she pulled out of the driveway. That change happened in an instant. Many changes do. But my change, my reaction to this change, has been gradual, and sometimes painful.

For a while now, though, I’ve seen both the positive and negative aspects of this change. It gives me so much pleasure to see this brilliant, beautiful woman live her life.

Still, it pains me not to be part of her everyday life, to be with her more often, to love her in real-time, and to parent her, really, to just be her mum.

I have spent most of her lifetime and much of my lifetime being Mum. This change of becoming two adults, who are now a long-ago and far-away daughter and mother, is taking me some time.

Sometimes change happens instantly, and sometimes it takes time, a good time, and all in good time.

That’s okay. I simply try to be mindful of this truth, that everything changes. I practice accepting this. It brings me a little peace of mind and heart, at moments.

But attachment happens.

I’ve formed attachments in my life and they’ve caused me pleasure and pain. I’m learning to practice non-attachment. In the instances when I see the faintest glimmer of this non-attachment, I know that nothing is permanent.

Knowing this, even for an instant, reminds us to appreciate and to be grateful for the good times—and it helps us during the difficult times too. With non-attachment comes acceptance, even contentment.

But for the many moments, the most of our time that we are attached to things, ways of being, and the other beings we love, we will experience the full gamut of the pleasures and pains of this human existence—the good, the bad, and the unnoticed.

When changes are noticed, or become uncomfortable, or may even be life changing, try to ask yourself three little questions.

1. Can I see this change as an opportunity?

Is there something of value somewhere in this change? Can I find something within it, a take away from which I can learn? Will I take the opportunity I’ve found and adjust or adapt to this change, to change my life, to even change me?

2. Can I react to this change by changing myself?

What thoughts and feelings do I have? Can I let go of some of them? Which ones will I allow to go? Which will I choose to express? What thoughts, words, and actions will empower me to accept this change? How will I change?

3. Can I just be with this change until I am ready to change?

Sometimes that’s all we can do. Sometimes changes are so unexpected, so painful, and so uncontrollable, we simply have to muster up enough courage just to be. And that’s okay. Because, you know what? This will change too.

Because everything changes.

When it does, try to ask yourself these three little questions. It may take some time to answer them. And that’s okay.