“Can I pick your brain?” That’s a tough one.

I really love hearing about what journalists are up to. Especially now that I work by myself in a home office, I look forward to conversations that involve brainstorming or giving feedback on cool ideas.

There can be too much of a good thing, though. I get a lot of requests for people to pick my brain about their work or get feedback on a report or idea. And while I wish I could say yes to all of them, I do have a primary obligation to the projects, students and clients who pay my bills.

And yet … people are so interesting! I want to say yes! The days I spend interacting with smart people are my favorite days! Plus, I’ve grown immeasurably through my interactions with generous colleagues and strangers, and I enjoy paying that forward.

Screenshot 2017-08-29 16.11.36.png
I’m glad some of my projects, like Gather, involve regular video chats.

A journalism colleague, Melody Kramer, asked me today how I decide which requests to say yes to. Mel is someone whose brain I’ve loved picking over the last several years, and she faces this same dilemma. Here’s what I told her: 

  • I almost always say yes to students, especially if their request is thoughtful. This goes for former students of mine as well, no matter how far removed they are from school. If I taught them during my 12 years at the University of Missouri, or in my current gig at the University of Florida, they pretty much get lifetime access.
  • I almost always say no when the request is product-based — when someone I don’t know wants me to give feedback on a tool, app, etc.
  • I then prioritize things that will benefit my current or future work — people who can help with a current project, who might become clients, who can connect me with someone I need to talk to, etc.
  • I say yes to most media interview requests. Often the requests are related to work I’m doing (like the Trusting News project), and it benefits everyone involved if the visibility of the project is raised. Also, I know prospective clients google me, and it’s important that they find relevant, recent links.
  • Next is a category of people I say yes to because I should — because it might burn a bridge or cause offense if I don’t. Those are the obligatory meetings.
  • After that, I say yes if I can and if I feel like it. I have no problem saying that I wish I could help but am unfortunately booked up. When I say no, I try to refer folks to someone else. I know a lot of really fantastic emerging leaders who have thoughtful input to give AND who might enjoy making a new connection and boosting their public profile. So I try to share the wealth.

Here are three other relevant tools or strategies:

  1. I manage my scheduling with Calendly, which syncs with Google Calendar. I have a link that shows when I’m available, and I can invite people to schedule 15 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour with me. I stick to whatever time limit I set.
  2. I value the time I spend on conversations like this, even if there’s not money attached. I use a tool called Toggl to track how I spend my work time, and I have a category called “outreach.” When I look back over my day, week or month, it’s important to me that that count as “work” time, even if it’s not attached to a specific client or project.
  3. One thing I’ve thought about but haven’t done publicly yet: holding office hours (like in a Zoom room) where I make myself available for chatting. I’ve done it with clients or people I’m working with on a project. If I wanted to go public with it, I could let people sign up for 15-minute time slots, or just stop by.

Saying no can be hard, but I’ve almost entirely let go of my guilt around it. The fact that someone wants my time doesn’t obligate me to share it.

Bert, my office companion

When I feel conflicted about saying no these days, it’s usually because I truly wish I could make time for All The Conversations. I’m alone in my home office, and Bert isn’t a very good conversation partner. His active listening skills are poor.

But I can’t always make time. I’m glad I seem approachable and accessible, and I enjoy hearing from people. But sometimes, I’m truly booked up. Sometimes, I’m blocking out the afternoon to write or think.

Sometimes, the answer has to be no.

A specific thing I’m curious about: Does gender play a role? Do women seem more approachable and get more requests? Or do women genuinely place a higher premium on actually BEING accessible?

What do you think? And how do you manage requests for your time? I’d love to hear your strategies. Hit me up at joy.m.mayer@gmail.com or on Twitter.




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