The digital age means almost anyone can find a way to contact you with very little effort. If you're good at what you do, people are likely to seek your advice.

Hearing from someone who is new to your industry--or someone who is striving to achieve what you have--can be a wonderful opportunity to mentor someone. It can also turn into a networking opportunity.

On the flip side, if you're successful in your craft and you have an online presence, there's a good chance you'll be overwhelmed with requests to "pick your brain."

And if you're too generous with your time, you'll struggle to get your work done. But sometimes, it's hard to say no to people who seek your wisdom.

Some people are persistent. They'll ask you again and again. Others will tell you they really only need two minutes of your time (but two minutes easily turns into 20).

Here are five productive ways to respond to people who seek your advice for free:

1. Point people to a resource for frequently asked questions.

I'm always happy to help paying customers. In my case, that means someone who has read my book or purchased my Mental Strength Training course. I answer emails every day from people who have questions or comments.

But, I can't offer online therapy via email and I can't reply to every single person who reaches out to me on social media with questions about how to become an author or how to get mentioned in the media.

So rather than give a long-winded reply, I point people to existing resources. When I receive the same question several times, I write an article on that topic. Then, I can offer a quick reply with a link to the information that will help.

2. Explain your time constraints.

If someone really wants to talk to you, explain that you run a very tight schedule. Say something like, "My schedule is booked for the month," or, "My days are tightly scheduled."

A quick, "Sorry I don't have time to do that," may soften the blow. You might also be able to say, "Oh I wish I had time to speak to everyone personally who shows an interest in what I do." But it's important to make it clear that you can't consult with everyone free of charge.

3. Set aside a specific amount of time for brain picking.

Consider setting aside a specific time for answering questions. Whether you have one afternoon a month or one day every six months, giving people your time for free could be a good way to give back to the community.

You can do this several ways. You might schedule 15-minute phone calls or even offer a webinar or Facebook Live session. If people are motivated to get your advice, they'll make themselves available whenever you are kind enough to offer your expertise.

4. Charge for your time.

If people seek your expertise regularly, consider charging for your advice. If they are really interested in talking to you, they'll be willing to pay for your services.

Interestingly, however, you might find people only want your advice when it's free. Establish a fee and they might move on and ask someone else. It's interesting to see how many people expect others to donate their time without being willing to offer anything in return.

So set a fee and say, "I can talk to you for 30 minutes next week. This is how much I charge..." and you might find people aren't interested in scheduling an appointment.

5. Ask for information up front.

Ask people what they hope to accomplish by scheduling a quick phone call. You can also ask for an agenda.

Say something like, "To maximize the 15 minutes we'll have on the phone, I want to make sure we meet your goals. Please tell me what you'd like to gain and provide me with a quick agenda."

If the person's goal and agenda look reasonable, schedule a quick phone call. Offer a time or two when you're available and see if the other person is willing to make it work.

The Joy of Giving Back

I've seen plenty of people get burned out in business. And if you're too relaxed with your time, you may put yourself at risk. Establishing clear, healthy boundaries is key to managing your resources wisely.

When you become intentional with your time and your efforts to help others, however, allowing people to pick your brain could be good for you. Talking to new people, hearing about their endeavors, and talking about your efforts may help you stay energized around your work.

Establish a plan for how you'll deal with people who want to pick your brain. Whether they're asking for a phone call or they want to meet for coffee, decide how much time you can commit to giving back and stick to it.

Published on: Jan 12, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.