When You Get a Million Requests to Pick Your Brain

February 17, 2015

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?

How to respond to people who want to pick your brain

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.

Pick your brain

Your brain = valuable real estate.

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.

1. Meet for coffee in groups

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.

Catching time. Not an easy thing to do.

Catching time. Not an easy thing to do.

2. Lean on Clarity.fm

I’ve written before about how I use Clarity to protect my time. Clarity is a platform that connects experts to people seeking information and advice, so anyone can request a call with me there.

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.

3. Defer the call until later

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:

  • It removes me from their first line of defense. A person’s first solution shouldn’t be to try and pick my brain. Instead, they should Google their question and try to find the answer themselves. (How many times do you have to refrain from sending brain-pickers a Let Me Google That For You link?) By making them wait two months to talk to me, I’ve forced them to do some of the hard work themselves. That hard work should always be done before you pick someone’s brain.
  • Often, the person never follows up. Probably because they’ve now done the hard work and figured out the answer themselves. Or they’ve found someone else to help them and resolved their question.

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.

4. Funnel inquiries through a team member

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.

5. Just 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?

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    23 Replies to “When You Get a Million Requests to Pick Your Brain”

    • I have the same bottleneck problem too. I think is a solution is to great a “growth picking brain” book, which is what I plan to do. It’s just too much to handle the bigger you get.


    • Lisa says:

      Handling brain-pickers is really tricky. Friends have frequently referred friends-of-friends to me for retail/small biz advice, and for a while, I was super welcoming. We’d sit and chat for an hour, talk about ideas, talk about my experiences. But more often than not, it was a one-and-done. They didn’t keep up correspondence so that we could learn from each other and build a network.

      Starting a short series of business classes was somewhat helpful. I could say “I don’t have time coming up, but I AM teaching this class on X date.” Sometimes folks would willingly pay for the class, other times they would decline.

      After these experiences, I still find myself happy and willing to talk to students. I’ve shared emails with students wanting to talk about my thesis, and last semester I worked with two students on several projects during a class that an acquaintance was teaching. Working with students feels the most satisfying. But, it’s always trial and error!

      • Alexis Grant says:

        So true, Lisa! I think what you and Susan are saying below is, we’re happy to help when we feel like that advice is appreciated and put into action. When it’s not, we kinda feel like we’ve wasted precious time. I like your ideas here.

    • Susan Shain says:

      Great post, Lexi! I don’t get many requests to meet in person, but I used to spend a lot of time answering questions over email — only to never receive a response back.

      So I’ve started to do something similar to Tip #3; when someone writes with a basic question, I write a short reply asking them for more details about their situation. 80% of the time, I don’t get a response — because either they weren’t serious with their inquiry, or they don’t feel like putting in any effort. This way, I know the people who do respond are truly interested in my advice/help.

      I’m definitely going to implement #3 with friends-of-friends though. Thanks for the tips!

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Good one to add to this list! Thanks, Susan =)

        One more tip for answering email questions that come up repeatedly — Write a blog post about that question, and next time some emails you, send the blog post as an answer!

    • Carrie Smith says:

      Thanks for mentioning my “Pick My Brain” sessions. I’ve learned that it’s the best way to direct people who aren’t serious about their inquiry. I still reply to a lot of questions and share tons of feedback for free. But this way I don’t have to waste too much time on someone who isn’t very interested in what I have to say. And it gives the people who are interested, premium time and advice that they need.

    • Corina says:

      Great tips Alexis.
      Number 2 is very innovative. And the fact that part of it goes to charity is even better, you help more people at the same time.
      Maybe we should learn to have respect for the person we´re trying to approach and for his/her time.
      Like Carrie says, when money factor comes in, people think twice and evaluate if it´s really necessary or they can find the same info on your website, blog posts, etc.
      I stay with: “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.”

    • Using Clarity.fm as a buffer – and raising money for charity – is a fantastic idea. Thanks for sharing this, Alexis!

    • Ana Hoffman says:

      This has always (and is!) a huge problem for me, Alexis.

      I have hard time saying No. Networking and paying forward is also one of my top priorities (I’ve learned a long time ago that it’s good for business :), but now I get barely anything done for Traffic Generation Café and instead spend most of my day on tasks that are helpful to an individual, but get me nowhere with projects that actually make money for me.

      Love the ‘delay’ idea (simple and brilliant!) and never heard of clarify.fm; something to keep in mind.

      Thank you and pleasure to meet you (decided to follow your link from Matt Banner’s expert roundup post).

    • Such a genius post, Lexi! I love the idea of deferring the ask until later. You’re so right that most people will forget or figure things out on their own during that time period. I’m going to have to give that one a try!

    • Tess Kearns says:

      This is a fantastic article. I am looking forward to being the kind of expert in my field that needs to know these things. I have a greater value for the time of the people that are currently helping me and I will not abuse it. The possibility of saying “no” is great. Charging people for my time and having the money go to charity – LOVE IT! I have learned over the years, that when people have to reach into their pockets, they have a greater appreciation, they don’t tend to squander it and with your approach, everyone feels good about it. Kudos, and thank you for your time in writing this advice.

    • Na'Tasha J. says:

      I couldn’t agree with this post more! These are great tips. I often find my problem is GREEDY brain pickers. They are the ones who set you up to believe that they just have a simple question, and when you agree to listen/help, it turns into building a website/content strategy/etc. with bells, whistles and dash of Lady Gaga. It’s so frustrating because you have the added pressure of saying “no” once you’ve already kind of said “yes.” Whew.

    • So helpful–this came at just the right time. As a people pleaser and want-to-help-nice-people type, it’s really difficult to just flat out say, “no” even when I’m overly committed. Thanks for the great tips and ideas. I especially liked the group coffee chat. And chats where the $$ goes to charity? Brilliant! Thanks, Alexis.

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