Big Picture

The bottom line when working with busy people is to preempt as much of the mental overhead of working with you as possible; all it really takes is some brevity and thoughtfulness on your part. If you form the eight behaviors I list below (and others I may be forgetting) into habits, you'll be much easier to work with and you'll get better results.

Define "Busy"

One of the transformational things my job at Microsoft has done for me is help me appreciate what it is like to be extremely busy and how hard it can be to work with other extremely busy people.

“Busy-ness” isn’t a measure of how much time someone spends working, although there’s typically a strong correlation; it’s really a measure of the total amount of concern a particular individual has to manage at any point in time. The busier you are, the greater the concern you are managing.

Each task / person / problem / thing you have to manage at any given time carries a non-zero amount mental and emotional overhead – dates, consequences, pressures, stakeholders, key facts and figures, costs, opportunities, sentiments, and so forth. All of this takes effort to remember, recall, manage, and act upon.

A person who has to manage 1,000 small things is extremely busy; a person who has had a parent or close relatively die recently is extremely busy. The number of items isn't what matters - it's the total sum of the mental and emotional overhead that drives busy-ness.

When you’re trying to do business with extremely busy people, you are effectively adding more stuff onto their already full plate. In order to effectively communicate and do business with them, you need to minimize the overhead of whatever it is you need said busy person to do for you.

So here are some ways you can make it easy for busy people to get back to you:

1. Always be the one to propose possible times for phone calls or meetings, and include more than one option.

When I ask to meet with the managing director of an accelerator or the CTO of an interesting startup (busy people,) I always end my emails with a sentence that reads something like this “do you have time for a quick phone call any time after 3:00pm on Tuesday or Wednesday?”

The effect here is subtle: what you do by proposing times yourself is you give the busy person the ability to focus on a small range of possible times, and the likelihood of getting a response back in-turn is drastically higher than if you left the scheduling completely open. The proposed times will either work for the busy person or they won’t, and they can give you a simple yes/no answer in return.

If you leave the scheduling for an appointment totally wide open, you are essentially forcing the busy person to do a scan of their entire calendar over the next couple of weeks and force them to find a time. This is overhead – busy people hate overhead, and they may defer responding to you indefinitely.

All of the other techniques I described here are derivatives of the following rule:

Everyone likes being responsive, even the extremely busy. When you the decrease need for busy people to think when considering any business opportunity or engagement you might have, you increase the likelihood that they will get back to you.

2. Keep it brief.

If you want to do business with the extremely busy, make certain that they can understand what it is you want to do in a matter of seconds – not minutes. If find yourself writing War and Peace emails, then you have failed.

Save your stories and background for when you talk in-person or over the phone – keep any requests you have in writing short and specific. One sentence for who you are and what you do. One sentence for what you need. One sentence for the value you can offer the busy person in return. One question on how to take the next steps. Done1.

Anything beyond that and you’re using the wrong communication medium.

An even better technique than the Three Sentence Rule for emails is the EOM rule, where you fit the entire body (super short, obviously) of your email into the subject line and terminate it with [EOM] for “end of message.”

If you use the EOM rule, then busy people will read your entire message whether they want to or not given that they can see the entire body of the message in the subject line when they glance over their inbox.

3. Have a specific idea for what it is you want to do; articulate it clearly.

So let’s say you do a good job and manage to get a meeting with a busy person – what then? You should always have an objective for whatever it is you want from them, and you should make that objective as specific as possible.

The more specific your demands are of a busy person’s time, the less overhead for them (usually.)

When I meet with someone who asks me if I can get help their startup get started with a Windows Phone 7 version of their application, then that’s reasonably easy – if they ask me how to solve a specific engineering or design problem that they’ve run into, then that’s even easier.

The amount of information I have to extract from the requestor in order to actually help them is drastically smaller in the latter example and thus I can move from words to action much more quickly.

Contrast this with some meetings I’ve had where the people who requested the meeting open with “how can you help me?” There are hundreds of different ways I can answer that question, but since the meeting requestor hasn’t provided me with any context as to what’s important to them I’m going to do what any other busy person would do and go down the path of least resistance.

That path does not always lead to the results that either party wants, so make the path of least resistance the one that leads to you walking away with your goals met by eliminating the busy person’s need to craft your engagement plan for you.

4. Always include the contact information or address of meeting place in the calendar appointment (and start using calendar appointments if you aren't already.)

This is a no-brainer. If you have scheduled a meeting with a busy person, do one of the following:

  • Specify who is calling whom and at what phone number;
  • Specify a bridge line if it’s a conference call; or
  • Specify the actual address of the place you’re meeting for in-person meetings.

If a busy person can’t figure out how they’re supposed to contact you or meet with you, they might just push or not show up. Make it clear for everyone and take the extra 2 seconds to add a little specificity to the meeting request.

5. Always include your contact information in your email signature.

Particularly important if you are doing in-person meetings – stuff comes up and people might run late or might get lost, in which case they need to be able to get back to you.

Always include a phone number where you can be reached in your email signature so they can contact you in the event that something goes wrong and they run late or need help finding you. If they haven’t had time to save your contact information, they can at least quickly look up your last email conversation and grab your contact information that way.

6. Do not, under any circumstances, go “favor-shopping.”

A surefire way to never hear from a busy person ever again is to shop them for favors. This happens when one person tries to extract as much value out of a busy person’s time as possible by stuffing the meeting full of requests for different and often unrelated favors. 

I had a meeting where a person presented me with four unrelated projects and asked how I could help with each; I ultimately decided not to help with any of them, because it was clear that this person did not care what my interests were. It was all about their projects, not about building a mutual business relationship.

When you go favor shopping, you’re not offering any value in return – you’re openly using the other person and being a parasite in the process.

Favors don't come at a volume discount.

7. Be appropriately persistent.

Follow-up is good; busy people let stuff slide and can easily forget. Finding a way to stay on someone’s radar appropriately is necessary and good.

However, asking for read receipts for every single email you send is obnoxious and busy people will simply delete your messages.

In contrast, following up after 2-3 business days with a simple “just wanted to double check to see if you’re still available for lunch on these dates” is fine under most circumstances.

Here are my rules of thumb:

  • Time-sensitive business emails: 2-3 days for people I don’t know, 1 day for people I do. Obviously this varies depending on just how time sensitive the matter is.
  • Important but not urgent business emails: 1 business week.
  • Anything else: why are you bothering this person?

Email is often a crappy medium for doing business anyway – pick up the phone and call the busy person’s office if you aren’t able to get ahold of them via email.

8. Be flexible.

Life happens; meetings get moved; and things come up. Be flexible enough to take these things in stride. You’ll get a lot more business done this way and will be thanked for it.


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