Imagine this: You’re working on a creative project. It’s not exactly easy going, but something is special is happening – you’re losing track of time, focusing and trying new things with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Good news – this creative state of mind is actually a learned skill that you can use and improve whenever you want. It’s what blogger Steve Pavlina calls a “flow state” – when creativity just happens. 

Here are a few simple rules that you can apply to your creative process to improve your confidence and do more and better work, whatever you try.

1. Set goals that make sense to you

We often look to what’s come before us when we set our goals. Instead, ask yourself “What do I want to achieve?” By setting goals that reflect who you are, you’ll be able to stop comparing your progress and start simply creating. Don’t feel like to succeed there is a right or a wrong way to do something. Art, writing and other forms of creativity are highly personal. When you’re truly interested in your goal, reaching it will be easier and more enjoyable.

2. Consider changing your setting

When you imagined yourself working effortlessly on a project earlier, did you see yourself in a quiet library, or a private office? Consider the space you work in, but be open-minded – This paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that exposing subjects to “a moderate…level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks” when compared to a quiet environment. You don’t have to leave the house, but try adjusting your environment when you’re sitting down to be creative. Light a candle or two, put on some music or let your favorite movie play in the background.

3. Use tools that suit you

If you loved to paint with a roller, why would you use a brush? If you wanted to enjoy yourself, you would choose the tool you liked and being efficient wouldn’t be as large a consideration.

An effortless creative process is unique to you, so try a few things and stick with what feels the most natural. You’ll work better and faster if you allow yourself to feel confident, not uncomfortable.

4. Dedicate your time to being creative

If you don’t start, you won’t ever finish. Even if you’re not a planning person, you’ll find that defining how you use the time allotted to you each day makes getting into a “groove” much easier. You don’t have to rush either. Remember, an hour of creativity could be one sitting or 4 short bursts of 15 minutes each. What matters is that you dedicate the time to being creative.

5. Gather your resources in advance

Having everything you expect you’ll need on hand before you begin will reduce friction and make creativity easier. If you’ll need books or articles, gather them up before you start. If you’re planning on using images, gather them up and put them in one place. Save all your links in one text document. If all you’ll use is your imagination, gather up the tools ahead of time, whether it’s a pencil and paper or just a cup of tea.

An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Squidoo HQ.

The word “ratchet”, sidechained kickdrums, casual misogyny/slut-shaming and shoutouts to Japanese fashion designer Kenzo – make no mistake, this mix is a hot mess showcasing practically everything that’s wrong with modern R’n’B and hip hop. All that’s missing is “no homo”.

It also sounds GREAT. Fresh, sexy, crisp production and a great variety of big name and some lesser known artists. This 60min+ mix by Southern Hospitality DJ Rob Pursey is my favorite guilty pleasure lately. Enjoy.

Rated R – Autumn Mix – Mixed Live By Rob Pursey by Southern Hospitality on Mixcloud

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“For a society in which art no longer has a place and which is pathological in all its reactions to it, art fragments on one hand into a reified, hardened cultural possession and on the other into a source of pleasure that the customer pockets and that for the most part has little to do with the object itself.” – Theodor Adorno – “Aesthetic Theory”

I began to experience uncomfortable feelings about the social photo sharing application Instagram after roughly 2 years of using the service. Observing my behavior, I felt like I was selecting images to share with ever-increasing care and scrutiny. At the same time, I found myself going back and deleting older photos for somewhat arbitrary reasons – either they did not meet my “aesthetic standards” or I felt that they revealed too much of me, or perhaps just the wrong parts of me.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time just looking at the more than 250 photos I had shared during my time on the service. It felt a bit like looking at a picture of myself; the glass of whiskey after a difficult day, the photos explicitly in “other” places, they all seemed like signposts that said something about me – a way to tell people who I was.

With time and habituation, I believe we begin to believe we can see ourselves in the images we share. Yet our mirror lies to us, our artifice, once conceived and created for the consumption of others becomes an affectation that blurs the lines between the real self and the contrived self.

In August of 2012 I deleted my Facebook account for reasons too detailed to go into here, suffice it to say I felt uncomfortable with they way I (and others) use these services: under the false pretense that we are sharing ourselves, willingly facilitating observation of the minutia of each other’s lives, we fabricate a pernicious, inescapable alter ego that governs what’s deemed worthy of broadcast.

Transposed from plain, ordinary reality into a kind of detached “theater of reality”, the voyeur becomes simply a viewer. Removing the voyeur’s veil of secrecy and placing them directly in front of the subject to be consumed alters the behavior of the subject – the exhibitionist no longer walks nude in their living room waiting for an audience not guaranteed, instead they man the peep show booth, waiting for the curtain to rise.

This is a different intangible audience from the one that censors our words when we write in a diary, for fear that someday our journal entries be discovered and our skeletons and secrets be revealed. This audience is implicit, present in the very nature of the medium. This implicit audience bothered me – the constant imposition prevented me from any kind of authentic use of the service.

Within the larger aesthetic framework of society, I would argue that the message here is not the image itself, but the subtext that comes with it. When we consider the real role of these images and their place in our increasingly visual culture, what at first blush appears to be self-expression is really more an aspirational outline drawn by the user.

The image’s ability to convey information is the same as in documentary photographs of the horrors of war as in selfies and Sunday brunches; that is to say in order for these images to convey any information, they would need to be separated from the platform that provides their context, externalized from the voyeuristic juxtaposition of viewer and creator.

In reference to images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis, Baudrillard said the images in question offered us “Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false. From now on and forever we will be uncertain about these images.”

The experience of selecting and displaying an image in an act of calculated artifice (disguised as a kind of self portraiture or sharing of the self) inevitably leads us to a place where we doubt the veracity of all the images we see on Instagram and services like it. This is what happened to me. The more I realized how inauthentic, calculated and artificial my use of the image had become, the less I was able to consume the images shared by others with any sense of pleasure.

Out of context, an Instagram image becomes void of any explicit meaning – it cannot be parsed into the larger framework of consumerist exhibitionism without having the user’s name attached. But, when we place the same image into a user’s “stream”, the duplicitous intent behind the genesis of the image’s existence is revealed; it exists not only to convey aesthetic information but rather to offer the markers with which the implicit audience can categorize and understand the creator’s rank, place and status, aspirational or otherwise within a capitalist, consumerist society.

Lotringer says in The Piracy of Art that “Now, duplicity is transparent. Who today could boast having any integrity?”

Certainly not I.

I recently ran a survey of 25 Community Managers from around the web and asked them 5 short questions about how they use Volunteer Moderators in their online communities. I’ve worked with roughly 40 volunteer mods in the various communities I’ve worked in and the experiences have been all across the board in terms of success.

There’s something about giving even “lite” powers to a stranger from the web that’s a little scary to me, so I wanted to seek the insights of others in my field to get a feel for what the average Community Manager is doing to with their volunteer mods and how they approach their use. Here’s what I learned:

1. “How long should a user have been a member of the community before they’re eligible to become a moderator?”

Answers here varied pretty wildly. Out of the responses that provided a numerical timeframe, the average was 7.5 months of community involvement. Everyone who answered with a timeframe under 3 months said that they could tell whether a user had volunteer potential by quality of their contributions and more than one person said that a long time in the community wasn’t necessarily an indicator that they’d be a good candidate.

Overall, my greatest takeaway was that users can be judged on how “helpful” they already are before they’re allowed to become part of your team.

2. “How frequently do you contact your volunteer moderators to “check in” and share new goals?”

I wanted to get a feel for how often you need contact your volunteers to tell them how to prioritize their time, get them up to speed on any “fires” that might need putting out and direct their efforts within the community.

On average, Community Managers check in with their volunteers every 6.5 days, or roughly once a week. Generally, volunteers can be left to their own devices but people who checked in more often seemed more pleased with the overall quality of their volunteers and had the least amount of problems with them. It would seem that autonomy is a dangerous thing when using volunteers. More than a few of those surveyed said something to the effect of “Not as often as I should.”

3. Do you give your volunteers the power to “ban” users from the community without your approval?

34% of Community Managers surveyed allow their volunteer moderators to ban users from the community. Several reported requiring the approval of a CM, or providing only the ability to ban a user temporarily. 3 CM’s told me that they have a “suspension” or temporary ban feature for their volunteers but the power to ban a user permanently lies with the staff only.

4. Do all of your volunteer moderators have a visual callout that tells other members that they have administrator powers? If not, why not?

7.5% of Community Managers don’t require a visual callout for their volunteer moderators.

The rest of the group was in agreement that allowing unmarked moderators led to a “secret police” feeling that was bad for the health of their communities. A key concept I noted was that by marking volunteers as different from the other community members, you imbue them with a respect that helps new users benefit from their advice. New users don’t like being told what to do by other community members so using a visual callout of Moderator status provides a separation between Volunteers and the community at large.

5.  “How do you handle Volunteer Moderators who have overstepped their bounds?

There are several approaches to this situation. The majority of you said that when something like this happens, after being stripped of their powers the user often leaves the community of their own volition. One approach I thought was quite interesting was from a Community Manager who wrote that they use Volunteers on a rotating, yearly basis. If a volunteer isn’t up to snuff, they simply aren’t asked to rejoin. This won’t work for everyone but I liked that it incentivizes volunteers to do their very best work.

This quote summed up the best practice for me personally: “People make mistakes. Everyone needs to be handled with dignity.” Volunteer Moderators are real people with a stronger than average want to help and be a member of the community they take part in, so even when they go overboard, they should be treated with respect.

In conclusion, I think the biggest things to learn from this survey is that every person who wants to be a volunteer moderator has to be assessed and interacted with as an individual. Losing track of your mods or treating them as all the same might be worse than not having them at all. And check in more often – it strengthens your working relationship with your volunteers and gives you even more control of how they work and help your community.

Finally, I wanted to share this “additional comment” I received.

“Volunteers help with scaling a large community but the majority of companies/orgs in my experience grossly underestimate the time and energy (including emotional) expended on volunteers. Volunteers have a range of motivations, of which they’re not always self-aware. Many do so for status & reputation which needs to be managed carefully. Others do so for a genuine love of giving back to the community and enjoy being rewarded by members. Almost all want recognition, and often more than is easy to give. Although I think a volunteer system in many communities has a lot of strengths, the weaknesses must be assessed. If a company is to build a financially viable community it should consider carefully how it will resource the community.”

I’d like to thank all the great people who participated in this survey. I sourced most of my Community Managers from the following (excellent!) LinkedIn Groups:

Association of Online Community Moderators

Community Managers

Community Managers Group

Online Community and Social Media Managers

The Community Roundtable

If you participated, please let me know in the comments and share your opinion on the results and thank you again for your comments!

photo by Sterling College

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish” – Tao Te Ching, Verse 60

This line comes up a lot when you start looking into the concepts of Taoism as they relate to leadership, for obvious reasons. In very practical terms, when cooking small fish, it’s important to know when to touch it, move it, flip it and when to leave it alone. Lao Tzu is referring to a fundamental precept of Taoism, wu-wei, or knowing when to take action and when to allow things to unfold and progress as they will.

This concept translates well to Community Management, for a few reasons. The biggest being a truism of online communities – the noisiest, most vocal users in large communities are generally, a minority. There is great value in knowing which concerns are broad reaching and which affect only that vocal minority. It’s very difficult to keep this in mind sometimes, especially since that vocal minority values their perceived klout in official decisions.

However, they use the same products and services that the rest of the community does. There are many users who would love to tell you their concerns and give feedback, if they knew where to go or were given the chance. It’s important to reach out to those members, find them and tell them “Your opinion matters!”

What’s good for them may not be what the vocal minority wants. And if you start allowing radical changes based on the will of the loudest voices, you may alienate and lose that large part of your user base that you aren’t talking to.

The Taoist philosopher’s world was much slower and decidedly less connected than ours, but the truth remains the same. It’s likely that a large community has members who don’t follow you on Twitter, read the official blog or get the newsletter. I believe Community Managers need to imagine how far-reaching changes will affect those members and advocate for the community as a whole, including those users who they may never speak to directly.

photo by soilse on Flickr

Some thoughts on “Moderation”:

There are many varied and valid reasons to moderate. Moderation can polish a community’s image, give it purpose or create a nurturing environment that fosters discussion, constructive criticism and relationships between users.

Moderating a community gives it focus. What you remove from your community places emphasis on what you leave behind. Moderation is a tool in the community manager’s arsenal that works both behind the scenes and center stage.

For example, your policy on profanity and vulgar speech alters the suitable age range of your product or forum. A community build around a more “adult” topic or product won’t necessarily benefit from the removal of swear words. You could alienate and frustrate your users by censoring them, similarly, if your product or service attracts a broader age range or if the community is likely to include children, a stricter policy will benefit you, both by protecting children and instilling confidence in the adult members.

You can de-politicize a community, create an online “safe space” or foster an all-inclusive, “anything goes” space. The focus will be provided by your style and amount of moderation. When you moderate, you are helping to define that vision and emphasize what kind of content is allowed.

A properly moderated community reflects the desires and needs of the community, but stays within the guidelines set by the company. A good, focused community can absolutely develop with no moderation but isn’t sustainable without it

Photo by Celeste Hutchins

One of the first things I do when I start working with a new CRM or ticketing system (Parature, ZenDesk, FogBugz, etc) is create a short list of  “scripts” that I can use to address common issues, or a template response for a task I might do many times.

I’ve recently started to use the Chrome extension PopChrom. It’s fully customizable and free.  It allows me to easily paste in my pre-defined replies with minimal keystrokes. I’d be willing to bet that everyone who does this type of work has a similar system in place. It’s great and it works. However, there is a dark side to this: I believe automation builds mistrust and even the most personal of notes reads insincere when you’ve already received it in the past.

I’m currently using a CRM tool that shows earlier tickets from the current sender. When I see that I’ve contacted a sender in the past, I will often alter the note, even if just slightly. Of course, this is dependent on the content of the ticket and the issue that’s being addressed. Quite often, a “Thanks, we’ve received this” or a similarly brief greeting is right, but when it isn’t, I’ve found there’s great value in deviating from the “script”.

It adds a personal touch and humanizes you a bit. So often, online interactions get stripped down to little more than a cartoon avatar, your first name and an initial. From reading the grateful, positive replies I receive, I believe there’s great value in taking that extra second to “switch the script up”.

Photo bScottSimpson on Flickr