Shield & Fortress

The writings and ramblings of Phil Bowell

  1. Let Me Make a Note of That

    Ever since I got my first iOS device, a 2nd generation iPod Touch, I’ve been on a quest to work out the best way to take notes. I’ve tried a shed load of different apps, Simplenote, Evernote, Notesy, the built in notes app, NVAlt… in fact if you can name it I’ve probably tried it. I’ve always read with interest articles on note taking setups, how people use them, how their go to app on their iPhone works so well for them, and I’ve always struggled to figure out how or why that is.

    You see I’ve tried so many times to get into the habit of using an app, or a suite of apps, to make my notes in. But for whatever reason I’ve never been able to stick with one. I’ll go through a spell of forcing myself to use them, to form a habit so that my first thought is to use my phone or the Mac app, but they never stick. I can never get to the point where I can declare, so and so is my goto note writing app.

    Except, now that I think about it, I can.

    My goto for notes sits right beside me on my desk. In fact for the whole of my working life it’s sat right next to me on my desk, or in my back pocket. What’s it called?

    Well it’s called paper, or a notebook, and I make my notes on it with a pen. Try as I might I can not break the habit of using a physical notebook to make my notes.

    The habit stretches back to my school days. I always had a notebook, or the back of my exercise books, which I would doodle and scribble in. Then when I was 16 I started a Saturday job in a family run hardware store which further ingrained the habit. I always needed a piece of paper and a pen in my pocket, to make a note of measurements, stock numbers, phone numbers, delivery addresses, you name it and it was on my note paper.

    Then when I started uni the habit continued, my sketch book was always with me. I’d use it to make note of ideas for projects, to record comments from crit sessions with my tutors and when I got the odd freelance job, to make notes from client meetings. The way I use my notebooks has barely changed since then. When I meet a client I take my notebook and my iPad, but it never feels natural to pull out my iPad to make notes (I use it to show work). It does however feel natural to pull out a pen and jot down some comments.

    There’s something about the convenience of a notebook and pen that an app and my iPhone just can’t break. The technology, which on the surface presents a far more superior experience doens’t seem to be able to break the hold a nice notebook and pen has over me. With my iPhone I can make a note, I can tag it, it’s automatically dated and I can search to easily find what I need. It should be the best way of making notes. Except it isn’t.

    Tapping out a note on my iPhone, just doesn’t give me the mental connection that I need when making a note of something. It may be less efficient, in the sense that it might take me a little longer to find a note because I can’t search for it, but I do (generally) remember where on the page I wrote it and over time I’ve developed little quirks to help make things stand out. Tasks get a little box to the left of them, if I think it’s important when I write it, it’ll either get a star or often a box drawn around it. Information gets segregated on the page by lines, but more often than not, the simple act of writing it down is enough to commit it to my memory. It’s something which, in this digital world we now live, I fear we will lose. Processing something in an analogue manner can have a far more lasting effect than doing something digitally.

    There’s also something rather nostalgic about using a notebook and pen. I have every single notebook from my professional life as a designer on a shelf. I can pick them up and look back to a certain moment in time and have an instant connection. I can remember where I was, who I was with and what was going on in my life at the time. Some of them are all neat and look like they’ve barely been used from the outside. Most of them are nicely worn, weathered with age they bulge in the middle. But I think most importantly, they present a physical instance of the work I’ve done in my life. The vast majority of it is created on my Mac, sure some of it’s printed, but the ideas and beginnings of it all are in my notebooks. You don’t get that with a list of files on a computer screen, you don’t get little sketches or doodles that seemed like nothing at the time but which turned into a substantial piece of branding. The throw away moments that are so commonly created in a notebook don’t even get considered in a notes app. Those are the very moments I can’t give up, the very moments I won’t give up. They’re the very moments that bring the best out of me and my pen and notebook are the most powerful tools I own.

  2. 30 Things I’ve Learned in 30 Years

    When the year turned 2014 I began to reflect on my life, who I am, where I am and what I’m doing. Why should a simple year change cause such a mood to dawn on me? At the end of September I turned 30, it also happened to mark the 10 year anniversary since I left home and moved to university here in Cheltenham. These are two significant events in my life that mark the beginning and end of the last decade, one which has been full of happy times and inevitably it’s fair share of low times. Rather than this become a telling of the story that has been my twenties, I thought it more productive to look at, if I can, thirty things I’ve learned in the last thirty years.

    1. Faith is important.
    Where you put it and in whom you put it has the biggest influence on your life and how you live it. Don’t waste it by putting it into things or people, they will only let you down. Instead, place it in Jesus, He is the only firm foundation that will never go away or let you down. My Faith has helped me through both the highs and lows of the last 10 years in a way which is incredibly hard to describe, but rest assured I will never place it in anything other than Christ.

    2. Family matters.
    In just over the last 10 years (I know I’m breaking the rules slightly) I’ve lost 4 grandparents, they are all missed greatly and especially so when big events occur. If you have grandparents spend time with them. Find out about their life before you existed, who they were, what their dreams were when they were your age. Listen to them and invest in them as much as you do your parents and brothers and sisters. One of the things I treasure most is a letter my Granddad wrote when I was 11 telling me his experiences of the 2nd World War. When I read it I learn as much about my Granddad in that letter as I did when he was alive to speak to.

    3. Friends.
    They will come and go, you will keep in touch with some, you will drift away from others, there’s often nothing you can do about this (although often there is). Make the most of them while you can, go out of your way to help them, support them in all they do and in any way you can. You may never know how much it means to them.

    4. It’s ok to be an introvert.
    I used to, in fact I sometimes still do, struggle with the fact that I am a naturally quiet person. At school, even at uni, I used to see people who can easily strike up a conversation with someone they’ve never met before and feel like there was something wrong with me because I find it so hard to do. It’s taken many years, a lot of reading and thinking, but the realisation that I get my energy from deeper friendships and not from a room full of strangers has been incredibly freeing. The trick is to not let this become a crutch when in a room full of strangers, I still need to work on stepping out my comfort zone, but at least I know what that zone is.

    5. Don’t be afraid to tell your friends what they don’t want to hear and don’t be offended if they don’t take it on board
    My best mate has never shied away from giving the kind of advice I don’t want to hear. I’ve not always acted on it, but on reflection months later I often find it was very good advice. I hope I’ve returned the favour.

    6. Be vulnerable
    I don’t mean go spilling your heart out for all and sundry, but getting to know people properly means you have to be vulnerable. It sometimes means sharing elements of your life you may not be very proud of, but it means your friends will be able to support you in ways you really need, and it means you’ll find out who your friends really are.

    7. Smile
    Don’t be so wrapped up in your own world that if you randomly make eye contact with someone you panic and look away. Instead, smile. Not a forced one, a genuine one. It’ll make people feel like they matter and that they’re not a repulsive monster.

    8. Work isn’t the be all and end all that people make it out to be
    If you’re happy in it great, keep going. If you’re not, put your all into it no matter how down you feel about it. You will probably meet more people through work than through anything else in your life and people can tell if you don’t like your work, but people can tell more if you don’t like it and don’t care about it.

    9. Time Alone
    I’m not being anti-social when I disappear off to my room/office. Time alone is incredibly valuable, too much of it can be a bad thing, but not enough of it can be very dangerous. It’s ok to want to just spend time alone, doing my own thing. In fact I crave it sometimes, and when I don’t get it I can be touchy, cranky, less enthusiastic about things and just generally drained.

    10. Not Knowing is OK
    It’s ok to not know where you’re going. The world is full of people who give the impression they know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. Reality is they’re probably just as lost as you are and just bumbling along in a slightly more concealed way than you feel you are.

    11. Having a Plan is OK
    Expecting that plan to work out exactly how you want it to and the world to be a nice fairy tale ending isn’t. That plan you had for your life at the age of 20 is very unlikely to work out, that’s ok. Recognising you are not as in control as you think you are is a good thing. Surrendering to God and his plan is even better. Often it will take a big event to make you realise this, but it will bring you out the other side in a better position.

    12. Don’t be too introspective
    I realise this one is somewhat ironic coming from a guy who is looking back at his life and inward at himself as he reaches what feels like a significant milestone. It is important to reflect on life, the universe and everything, but doing it too often is a bad thing. It sets you up for failure as you inevitably compare yourself to your friends, the plan you had when you were 20… we are broken people and we naturally look at the negative in these circumstances. For every introspective moment, take a minute to look at the now, you’re healthy, God has blessed you with another day on his beautiful creation, you have people you care about and who care about you. Dwell on that for a moment, then go and enjoy the day.

    13. Trust
    Trust people. This is, on some level, linked with point 6. You can not be vulnerable with people you don’t trust, but equally you can not get to the point of vulnerability without trusting someone first. So trust people.

    Don’t be naive, there are people out there who will abuse your trust to get something they want. In my experience, you’ll work out who they are before it’s too late and the ones you don’t, you’ll learn a lot from. In those cases it will be painful for a while after, but in the long run probably worth it.

    14. Don’t let fear beat you
    That girl you’ve got your eye on, go speak to her. Don’t let the fear of what might happen, or the fear of failing stop you from doing things. Stop thinking of the negative what if’s and focus on the positives. Go, do and learn.

    This isn’t easy. In fact of all the things in this list it’s probably the thing I struggle with most and it’s also probably the thing I get most frustrated about because I have no clue how to beat it.

    15. Be disciplined
    You’ll never get what you want done in life without being disciplined in some way. Without a bit of discipline you’ll spend most of your time doing what’s easy.

    16. Read
    When I was growing up I used to read a lot. When I got to my twenties what I was reading changed from books to websites. The last couple of years I’ve been actively trying to reverse that change. I still read blogs, but I’m picky about which ones and I make a lot more effort to read books (and my bible). Books have more substance. They’ve taken hundreds of hours to write, been refined over and are written by people who are experts about the topic they’re on.

    17. Think
    Think about things. Think about topics of importance, take time to dwell on them and to understand them.

    18. Don’t apologise for who you are
    You’re who you are because God made you that way, don’t be ashamed of that.

    I’m thirty and have grey hair. I’ve never once, despite the recommendations of some of the youth I’ve worked with on beach mission in Wales, been tempted to dye it. God made me and He said I was “very good”. Why would I try and change that?

    19. Drink lots of water
    The last couple of months I’ve consciously been trying to drink more water. It’s had an interesting effect, I’ve felt more alert and able to concentrate much better. My skin has been clearer and I’ve lost weight as well.

    20. Stop checking Facebook at every available opportunity
    Just don’t. Your life will be better off without the constant stream of people filtering their lives to make themselves feel better.

    21. Keep a journal
    I wish someone had encouraged me at the age of 20 to keep a near daily journal. There have been several spells over the last few years where I’ve kept a journal. Most of those times have been to help me through difficult times. One day I might read them, but I’d much rather read them and be reminded of happy times and fun times that will help me when I’m going through the difficult times.

    22. Speak to your friends
    That might seem like something that goes without saying, but bare with me.

    We live in a world that relies on technology so much that it’s tempting to fall into the trap that it’s the best method of communication. My best mate lives 4 hours drive away, in fact for the 9 years that I’ve known him we’ve only lived in the same place for 2 years. Had we just relied on technology (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the odd text) to keep in touch we likely wouldn’t still be the friends we are.

    Friendships can only be maintained over a distance by putting in effort to speak regularly. Pick up the phone and give your friends a call. Speak to them.

    23. Laugh
    Find people who make you laugh. Find people who will laugh with (at) you when you do something stupid. Find people who will do things stupid that you can laugh with (at).

    24. Exercise
    Don’t just sit on your backside all day, get the endorphins going. Get on your bike, go for a run, walk really quick, whatever, just exercise.

    25. Pray
    You spend time with friends, so spend time with God.

    26. Have perspective
    Don’t just look down at your feet. If you’re so focussed on the now, you’ll forget what’s been and miss what’s to come.

    Look up. Look back. Look forward.

    This was the phrase I ended the student bible study with last week.

    Look up at God because you belong to Him for He bought you at great cost.
    Look back at Christ and remember what He did for you on the cross.
    Look forward to the day when Christ will return in glory.

    27. Sleep
    Get enough sleep. If I don’t get enough sleep I get tired (well duh). I can’t concentrate on my work, I lose focus when talking to friends, it affects me in many other ways and I see it in others as well.

    28. Organise yourself
    Make lists or use a todo app, but do whatever it takes for you to be organised. You’ll never do all the things you want to do if you don’t know what you’ve got to do.

    29. Shoulders back, head up
    It’s amazing how many people I see walking down the street looking at the ground or staring at their phones. Get your shoulders back and your head up, be confidant and move with purpose, the very least it will do is make you feel confidant. It also means those people with clipboards are less likely to bother you.

    30. Listen
    Be willing to listen to other people’s thoughts and opinions, especially if they are opposite to yours. Show respect to what they are saying and they will show respect to you when you share your opinion. Never shut people down with a blanket statement that dismisses their opinion as wrong and closes down any discussion, it is neither productive nor constructive.

  3. Fresh Start

    It dawned on me today that I’ve been writing a blog, in one form or another, for the last 8 years. Initially, I was full of the youthful enthusiasm of someone who had just discovered the medium, I could easily sit down at my Mac and within half an hour have published a new post. Within a few months I had found a number of other bloggers who wrote with a little more quality than I did and with a little more discernment when it came to topics they wrote about. They had built a bit of a larger audience than I had, but with some their encouragement I pushed on regardless. By the time I graduated university in 2007 I had built an audience of around 300 subscribers.

    It was a decent number of subscribers, but bore an unfortunate consequence. The number of subscribers caused me to stop enjoying my blog. I wanted to provide value to my readers, say profound things. I felt I needed to bring a focus to my blog in order to do that and I began applying pressure to myself. Eventually falling into the beliefs that the posts I was writing weren’t good enough.

    Things dried up and I stopped writing until my blog eventually died.

    Since then I’ve been trying to regain the blogging vigour I had when I first started. I just can’t seem to shake the pressure that what I write has to be amazing. I haven’t been able to break the fear of posting to my blog.

    I’ve even made things more complicated. When I first started blogging, I would just write whatever came into my head. It would get a tag or two and then be posted. But when I started to struggle I began to seek out solutions to make posting easier. I added linked list posts, so I could just post a link and a little bit of commentary. Then I added quotes, and soon after photos. But it never really worked, rather than making things easier, I had really just added a level of complexity that I didn’t need.

    When I started working for myself, I thought I would quickly begin blogging again. I hoped I would be able to add another creative outlet, one that I had once found so valuable. The trouble was, I didn’t know what the blog was for. Was it for my business or was it personal. It had my name on the domain but I wanted it to grow so that awareness of my business would grow. Consequently nothing really changed and, despite a few spells of posting links, it’s largely sat dormant.

    Starting again

    Over the last two months I’ve finally started to use an app that’s been on my iPhone for most of the last two years. I’ve begun to use Day One in a way that has bought me to a place that I want to write. Almost every evening for the last 2 months I’ve written an entry in Day One that has been tagged “3 Things”. Each post consists of 3 things that I’m thankful for from the day that has just passed. Occasionally the entries get an image, sometimes they get expanded on and I add some thoughts about whatever I’m thinking through at the time. One thing that it has helped me with, is finding that I’m starting to enjoy writing again. Starting to want to blog once again.

    It’s with this in mind, that I find myself here. Starting again.

    I’ve reset my blog. Gone is the archive of posts that are made up largely of links. Gone are the multiple categories and post types along with the complicated theme they needed to look different. Gone are any other bits of cruft that have built up over the years. Instead, posts are now posts, categories don’t exist and posts will likely be tagged. The site structure is simple, there’s the home page and the posts. An archive and an about page will follow at some point, but for now there are just posts. The theme is simple and clean, designed to be read and for any photos in the posts to look good.

    In some ways it’s a sad and disappointing move. I’ve deleted an archive of work that has taken a few years to build up. But I needed to take away the burden of expectation, I didn’t want anything to feel like it didn’t fit what had come before it. I didn’t want a barrier to my blog and it felt like my blog itself had become that very thing.

    So this is the new PhilBowell.com, it’s my blog and if you’ve made it to the end of this post I’d like to say thanks for your time hope to see you again soon.