I get a lot of requests from people who want to pick my brain.
No one calls it that, of course, because unpaid brain-picking has gotten a bad rap. But readers and peers and random people contact me almost every day asking my advice on building a business, best practices for recruiting writers or how to switch careers.
I love chatting with these types of people. But I simply can’t help everyone who hits my inbox. I know because I’ve tried, and it leaves me zero time for my own business.
Most advice around how to deal with brain-picking requests revolves around just saying no. But for most of us, saying no isn’t that easy.
It’s not easy because we want to help people. Plus, if you’ve built an online community — which is precisely why you’re so easy to find and contact — a big piece of what you’ve promised is to help members of that community. How can you say no to a loyal reader or long-time follower or friend of a friend?
This is something I’ve focused on a lot since the New Year; one of my big goals for 2015 is to simplify, and that means cutting out interactions that aren’t a valuable use of my time.
While I love getting off a Google Hangout and feeling like I helped someone who’s where I was 10 years ago, I also found myself far too often last year feeling like I spent my precious afternoon hours talking someone else through a problem when I should’ve been doing my own work.
Over the last two months, I’ve pushed myself to change that, and it’s working. Suddenly I have more blocks of time than before to make progress on my own projects. Not only does that mean I get more done, it also means I can take off more evenings and weekends because I’ve met my daily goals.
Here are a few of the tactics that have allowed me to free up more time for myself and my business, while still feeling the satisfaction of helping others reach their goals.
Getting to know others in person (as opposed to online) is, for me, one of the most rewarding ways to help others. It gets me out of my office and exposes me to new ideas and lifestyles, which I find inspiring, both personally and professionally.
But meeting in person is also time-consuming. So when young professionals ask me to meet for coffee, I suggest several of us meet at once. That saves me hours of meeting one-on-one, and it also helps interesting people meet each other.
When people email me asking for a phone call to talk through, say, how to grow a multi-author blog (which is what my company does for our clients), I refer them to Clarity, where they can book a call at $2.50/minute. The money goes to charity, so this isn’t about making a buck; it’s my way of encouraging the brain-picker to value my time as much as they value their own. If they’re paying for the conversation, they’ll think twice about whether they really need it, and they won’t keep me on the phone beyond the time frame we’d planned.
I used to charge less for Clarity calls, but it wasn’t quite providing the buffer I’d hoped, so I increased my fee. I still get requests from people who want to chat, and they’re always serious inquiries. Sometimes they even turn into clients.
Some entrepreneurs offer a paid coaching service through their own site to turn these inquiries into revenue. Carrie Smith of Careful Cents, for example, offers brain-picking sessions.
When I have trouble saying flat-out no to a request (usually because it’s a friend of a friend), I often tell the person I’m really busy for the next two months (which is always true), so I can’t do the call right now — but they’re welcome to get back in touch after that period and try to set something up.
This accomplishes two things:
The one downside to this approach is if the person does follow up — and sometimes they do — it’s more difficult to say no at this point. If you want to just say no, you should do that from the beginning.
If you have a team member or virtual assistant helping with email or other tasks, recruit them to help you respond to brain-pickers. All of the inquiries that come via my contact form on this site or our Socialexis site go directly to our projects account, where our project manager takes the first stab at answering them.
That doesn’t mean I never see the inquiries that arrive there; I occasionally peek at the account just to see who’s contacting us, and our project manager often loops me into conversations. But his job is to protect my time, and he knows how to graciously turn down requests from people who haven’t done their homework. Not only does this save me the time I’d spend responding to those emails, it also saves me the energy of figuring out how to say no.
This is still an option, and for most of us, it should probably be the default option. You can’t help others if you’re not making enough money to sustain yourself. And you can’t earn a decent living if you don’t spend meaningful chunks of time on your own business or career.
Whenever I have guilt over saying no, I think about a journalist friend of mine. She is one of the most productive people I know, managing a full-time job, a family and a side career as an author. I had a conversation with her once about how difficult it can be to say no, and she told me, without blinking, that we only have so much time in a day, and it’s up to us to decide how we spend it.
“It’s more important to me to spend time with my kids or get an hour of writing in than have coffee with someone I’ve never met before,” she told me bluntly. “Why would I feel guilty about that?”
How do you deal with requests to pick your brain? Got any other tips to add to this list?