May 2024

Can I pick your brain?

No Free LunchI’m getting better at saying no when I get asked ‘can I pick your brain?’

7 Reasons Why I Can’t Do “Free”


In a typical day, I get anywhere from 10 to 50 questions and req

uests to do something for others at no charge. A small number of these are from actual friends, some are from acquaintances, some from people who know me (and I don’t know them) and others from referrals. I know that many others are in a similar situation. Perhaps not getting nearly the same volume as I do, but nonetheless, it is troublesome or has the potential to be so. Today I’ll be sharing the 7 reasons why I can’t do “free” and I’ll be writing a follow-up post giving tips to those of you in a similar situation.

1. The Time It Takes

Many people who ask for free help from others don’t consider the time involved with providing it. I know they think – it’s only a simple question. It shouldn’t take long to answer, so it shouldn’t be an inconvenience. I beg to differ.

I track everything I do – both the time spent on things as well as the volume. I’m updating this post on February 8, 2016. In the first 37 days of the year, I received 961 requests to do something for free. If it took me an average of 10 minutes to answer each person properly, that would mean 9,620 minutes or 160 hours or just over 4 hours a day.

Even if all I did was tell people I can’t provide free advice, if it took 2 minutes to read their request and tell them I can’t help them, that works out to 32 hours of time so far this year. That’s basically a full working week!

Most of the requests I receive somehow come back to helping someone else realize their dreams in some way. The thing is – I have my own dreams. I have more things I want to do than there are hours to get it all done in.

2. It Takes Away From My Paying Customers

The things that people ask me to do for free are actually offered as a paid service through one or other of my companies. If you were a paying customer with one of my companies, how would you feel if you knew I was offering services free to other people just because they asked? It’s not fair to my existing customers.

3. It Zaps My Creative Juice

Each of us has only so many truly productive hours in a day. In my own case, I can get in about 5 solid productive hours on a typical day. It’s like a bank for me. Each day, I start off with this reserve of 5 hours. As I do work through the day, the reserve gets depleted. But it gets depleted at a faster rate when I have to shift gears more frequently. If I had a day where all I did was fulfill 5-10 minute requests, it would likely mean I’d be able to do maybe 20 of them in a day and absolutely nothing else productive. A complicated “simple” request might mean I need to do an hour of background thinking to figure out an answer, it might mean 20 minutes of research, it might mean contacting one or more people for input.

I think that a part of the issue is that some people see me active in social media and engaging, so they assume I have all this time available. Bantering with people about our respective days, the weather, the weekend or some current event topic does not require creative energy on my part. This is mental downtime. It doesn’t impact what I can get done in the day. Ask me to put on my thinking cap, even for a ‘simple’ question, and it’s a different story.

4. Most People Don’t Value Things They Get For Free

There have been countless times where I have helped people. In some cases, I’ve spent an hour or more of time with someone because I thought they genuinely needed the assistance. Whenever I have followed up to see how things were, it’s been very rare that they actually took any action on things. Often these were cases where someone was fired up about an idea, reached out to me before they even thought things through themselves, but when it came to actually doing, they lost their enthusiasm.

Now, there are some people who sincerely would value free assistance. But is it up to me to provide free help to anyone who asks for it on the basis that a small percentage of people will take it and run with it? No.

5. I’m a Professional Who Works Online

I worked my butt off to make it through business school. I had to work full-time in conjunction with school pretty much from my teens. I’ve been in business for over 20 years. I’ve paid my own dues. I am a professional. My knowledge and expertise, even if it simply a matter of answering one question – has value. It may have taken me over 2,000 working hours just to have the knowledge to answer a brief question skillfully.

Customers who pay me for my knowledge contact me through the same methods that those who want assistance for free do. The Internet is my office. You’d not expect a doctor, lawyer, accountant or other professional to provide free assistance – I should be treated with the same respect.

6. It Doesn’t Stop at One Request

I used to be much more generous with my time – that is until I got to the point where it was detrimental to my own life and well-being. One of the things I discovered is that a significant percentage of the time when I helped someone out for free, they would come back – often repeatedly – for more free help.  It has to end somewhere.

7. Quality Control, Responsibility & Reputation Issues

I thought I had this post finished when my partner at Frontspace, Steve Jones, reminded me of  a trifecta of other issues – quality control, responsibility and reputation management.

I pride myself on doing as excellent a job at everything I do as is humanly possible.  It is impossible for me to do things for free and maintain the level of quality I’d want to.

By the same token, when offering slipshod free advice, I am also opening myself up to responsibility issues that I’m not willing to take on.  Let’s say if it should have taken me an hour to research something appropriately, but I short cut it to 5 minutes and miss something significant. I tell the person the 5 minute answer. They act based on this advice. It is wrong. Where are my responsibilities here? What damage could be done to my reputation if this person went public and said I gave them wrong advice. In some cases, I could be opening myself up to legal issues.


Approaching this topic – and blogging about it like this – is very difficult for me. In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to help everyone I could. I hate coming across as a bitch. But part of the reason people come to me is that I have had success in business and a big reason for this is because I know the lines that have to be drawn. This is one of them.

When I’ve told people I can’t help them or don’t offer free advice, they often get testy with me.  The reality is – free for others comes with a price for me. It’s a price I’m just not willing/able to pay these days.

I know I’m not alone. Probably many of you reading this post get a varying number of requests for free help with things. In an upcoming post, I’ll tackle some ways that I have dealt and will be dealing with these requests. Hopefully it will help some of you.

Parting Words

If you need help with something and there’s someone you respect enough to approach for help, realize their time is valuable. Before contacting them directly, check out their website. See what their options may be for paid assistance or even if they take questions they would answer publicly.

If you are on the receiving end of requests for free help, realize it is okay – and healthy – for you to answer, “no.”

Need More Help?

I’ve received literally thousands of messages from people after writing this post. Many people had asked for guidance on how to handle various situations relating to brain picking requests and for free help. Others wanted to know when free can be used. I put together a program called “Converting Free to Paid” that almost 1,000 people have now taken. It’s inexpensive. You can get started with it immediately plus I’m available to people who go through it for questions through a Facebook group and q&a calls.

You can check it out and sign up here.


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