This is not a letter to friends, family, colleagues or good acquaintances.
This is a letter for the strangers I haven’t met, the missed opportunities, and the people I’ve unfortunately had to say “no” to in the past. This is for the people I’ve forgotten to respond to, the curious people I was unable to reciprocate with and the hundreds of people I’ve met at a conference, exchanged business cards with and taken no proactive measure to connect with further. This is for the people that have messaged, chatted or emailed me in the midst of a fourteen hour work marathon with an urgent task that I simply did not have the bandwidth or head space to look at correctly.
I want to apologize. Some of you may not need this apology nor be expecting it; As someone who prides himself on connection and efficiency, it’s definitely frustrating. You’re likely wonderful, deserving, and worthy. On any other day or week outside of the time you had connected, it may have been a different story.
But I don’t want to use this letter to glorify the long, arduous hours that any of us work or make a manifesto about my excuses for being unable to connect. In fact, this is less about me and simply more about the concept of busy schedules: the unintended burden that our busy schedules often have on others.
Many of you have probably been in this dejecting situation before:
You cold email someone to pick their brain, message a colleague or prospective mentor for career advice, or try to re-connect with an old friend after months. You put time and consciousness into planning — you put all that only to get hit with the unsuspecting proverbial wall: the busy schedule. Your emails go answered, your messages reach voice mails and your burgeoning hope is met with increasing disappointment. You draw assumptions and brainstorm a million reasons why someone wouldn’t want to meet with you or hear your ideas in the first place.
During my first year at IBM, we were constantly encouraged to find people at the company that intrigued us — the problem is that many of them were unequivocally busy. During my first two weeks, I would spend almost 20–30 minutes an email, making sure they included as much detail as possible. Nothing. I decided to spend time making them more concise, having others proofread them, and even using multivariate testing on subject titles to make them sound more concise and enticing. Nothing. I didn’t crack any secrets or find any formulas to break through.
Eventually, I met one partner I had emailed twice at a summit — we chatted for about 10 minutes and I learned that day that she had been backlogged for about 600 unread emails
600 unread emails.
We ended up working together on a few small projects and she became one of my favorite mentors at the company. The bottom line is that it had not been the content of my email or the way I phrased anything that made a difference — her work schedule had barely allowed her to explore conversations or initiative outside of her direct line of work.
Now — as someone with somewhat of an obsessive compulsive Inbox zero addiction who is not a partner or even a local celebrity– I’ve never been at 600 unread emails. I remembered the days where it was frustrating to get in touch with people and I made a promise to myself that I would attempt to answer all emails, calls for advice, or emails from old friends. As these turned into blogging, speaking, and partnership opportunities, there was even more pressure to keep up with it.
Then, the energy disappeared. I took off a week for vacation, saw my inbox spiral upwards of 300 unread emails and simply exhausted the possibility of replying to every single one. I began to wonder if people would make assumptions about my interest or consideration as I had with many of the people I never heard from. There were lots of really interesting people that I couldn’t fathom not making time for a year ago and questioned whether I would lose any credibility in their mind. With the severe ebb and flow of schedule, I simply often capitulated with “I’m busy”.
Nowadays, it’s used for almost everything. It can mean that you’re too busy watching “The People vs. OJ Simpson” on Hulu to grab a bite with a friend. It can mean you’re seriously disinterested in someone who wants to date you but don’t want to hurt their feelings. It can mean you’re paranoid or overwhelmed, without any free mind space to think. Even noted author Tim Ferriss has challenged the concept of being busy:
“ Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” — Tim Ferriss
Then, there are the times you’re actually busy.
There are the days you’ll work 10–12 hour days or have stringent deadlines when the words “I’m busy” suddenly take on a whole new meaning.
Maybe you’ve been on the other end — when you meet the person you most want to connect with in an ostensibly busy fog.
We often tend to blame ourselves when we get neglected by busy schedules. Maybe it’s true that you missed the mark on some of the prospective people you contact or some people just have no desire to respond back — at the same time, how can we stop blaming ourselves and immediately changing our own efforts and behaviors?
Your Value Doesn’t Decrease Based on Someone’s Inability to Connect
You could have the greatest idea in the world, the perfectly worded email, the cure to someone’s detrimental productivity disaster — if they don’t respond, remember that it’s not always your fault. Don’t let one person determine your value or energy simply because they are busy. You’ll meet many others down the road who’ll give your ideas and time the proper consideration it needs. If your old friend doesn’t respond, it’s likely not because he heard some weird rumor about you. Your colleague likely doesn’t have you on a blacklist. If someone’s busy, suggest a later time or move on. Don’t let your own worth take a hit because of something you have no control over.
Someone Else’s Busy Schedule Doesn’t Invalidate Yours
I always thought that I was never busy enough. I saw consultants who came into IBM at the same time as me and working 70–80 hour weeks, feeling uncomfortable and guilty. When I did start getting busy with work and billing longer hours, I still used to juxtapose my schedule to theirs. If I could work 40 hours a week, I had to still meet people and participate in weekend activities. I had to take advantage of the fact that I wasn’t working an extra 30 hours a week. I definitely wasn’t working as hard as them. Just remember that every person is wired to be productive differently. Don’t ever feel guilty if someone else is working longer hours than you — if you can get more done in a less amount of time, pat yourself on the back. Don’t yearn for a busier schedule. Take advantage of sleep and mental relaxation. You’ll likely have one day where you wish that you could relax more. I rarely tell people when I work 10 or more hours in a day — it’s what I needed to finish and has no bearing on anyone else’s work ethic. Don’t let your own health and sanity get preoccupied with how busy others are.
Silence is Not Always Apathy
I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve made mistakes in the past of over promising, failing to deliver and then having the other party rescind offers to meet or connect because they assume I had moved on or didn’t care. This alone has pressured me to start replying to emails quicker. Out of all the emails I’ve sent out seeking advice, I’ve learned that consultants, entrepreneurs, and many others get a natural adrenaline from hearing new ideas that often becomes victim to their own lack of time. If you don’t hear back after a few days, don’t automatically assume that it’s not out of their best interest. Yes, chances are you may not be the first priority. I sure wasn’t for a majority of people I reached out to. Saying “No” is heartbreaking for many people but saying an immediate “Yes” without consequence is destructive in the long-term. If you do finally connect with them, you may be thankful you waited.
Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” at the top for more posts on Medium.