Whether you're launching a business yourself, are making extra income with a side-hustle, or are killing it in a corporate role, success brings with it the inevitable request:

"Can I pick your brain?"

These requests are particularly plentiful if you work as a consultant, a specialist or as a creative entrepreneur, where your skills are in demand. Your brain comes packed with unique value, and people are bound to want an inside peek. 

But the problems with requests to "pick your brain" extend beyond the linguistic ickiness of the phrase. (Because, really, have you ever stopped to think about how gross the idea of actually "picking a brain" is?)

Here are three problems with it:

  1. If each request results in even just a 30-minute call or meeting, you may soon find your brain getting picked for hours each week, over-scheduling yourself to the point where you can't get your most important work done or even have time to think. When you're an entrepreneur, time is money. Time lost is money lost. 
  2. These requests tend to multiply. If you open the proverbial brain-picking gates, it becomes harder to say no to future requests, especially when those requests come through the  dreaded unprompted introductions from others you've permitted to pick your precious grey matter. 
  3. Most importantly, these requests to "pick your brain" are actually a request for free work or advice, which devalues your service as an entrepreneur, setting a precedent that you'll work for free and likely costing you paying leads.

Free work is not all bad, of course. We give our friends, family and colleagues free advice all the time, and many of us volunteer for community projects or organizations that align with our passions, happy to turn over our time and expertise in order to push that cause forward. 

And if that's the case -- if someone is a friend or aligned with a cause that is important to you -- then volunteering your time this way makes sense and can be rewarding. In fact, it's almost instinctive for us to give to those people and causes close to us; they don't even have to ask. (Can you imagine a friend texting "Can we grab coffee next week so I can request a few hours of free manual labor from you?" instead of just asking if you'll help with their move?)

But when you over-apply what counts as a friend or favor, or simply say "yes," by default, you're consenting to enter into an unpaid relationship with someone who would otherwise be perfectly positioned to become a lead: They need help with a business problem, and they recognize you as someone with the experience and skills to help them solve it. 

The key to managing these requests is to do it intentionally. 

Before agreeing to a "pick your brain" call or meeting, ask what they person is hoping to learn or accomplish from the call. This gives you the opportunity to refer them to a resource that answers their question without costing you time, to evaluate if they're even a good client for your business, or to segue into a proposal for a more formal relationship if they have a lengthy list of goals. 

If you're still not sure based on their response whether this is a viable business lead you can convert, suggest a brief call (no more than 15 minutes) to start off. This short call is more efficient, minimizing the drain on your time without eliminating the potential lead, and will help you get a sense of whether this is something that you should dedicate more time to. 

Set a limit for how many of these unpaid calls or meetings you'll do each month, taking your hourly rate into account when setting these boundaries. Any more than 30 minutes per week, and you'll start to see how it adds up. When those "Pick Your Brain Appointments" for the month are used up, you can truthfully say that you're only available for paid work until the next month. 

If you approach "pick your brain" requests with a consciousness for their impact on your business, you'll be able to stand up for what your time and your experience are worth while still strategically engaging the possible leads that can come from them.