Timing is everything when it comes to tapping your business network

By Gary Belsky
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Photo: Jess Sochol

There’s a lot of advice to be had about the best ways to develop your business networks, but not much at all about the best times to take advantage of that accumulated relationship capital. But timing may matter more than most people think when reaching out to contacts for help or guidance. There might very well be an ideal time—in the calendar and on the clock—to ask for a favor, especially a professional one.

It’s worth thinking about the next time you’re looking to mine your network. On the one hand, people are generally in better spirits in the morning and on weekends, as evidenced by Cornell University researchers who analyzed sentiment on Twitter. Most of us, once we are fully awake, start off at our happiest and get grumpier as the day progresses. Intuition suggests people in a good mood are more likely to be generous—and wouldn’t you know it, research does too. (Specifically, a study by Guidestar and Network For Good shows online donations are most likely to be made between 10:00 a.m. and noon.)

Given that a request for an introduction, connection or some other nugget of relationship capital is really just a plea for generosity, it follows that asking for such help would best be done on a Saturday or Sunday around brunch time. If, however, your “friend” isn’t close enough to bother during off hours, you should hold your ask for a weekday morning. But keep in mind that when you send an email and when it gets read can be two very different moments. I have a friend who reads and responds to emails for one hour twice a day, in the early morning and before dinner. When I need a favor, I send an email the evening before.

Seems simple enough, right? Except for this: The playing field changes if my friend has something to gain from granting me that favor. In such a case, I should probably try to make sure that she fields my request on the late side. As people move through their day they lose more than their smile; they lose self-control. (Ask any dieter if you’re not convinced.) Weakening of will, though, isn’t only true with regard to late-night snacking. A recent study done at Harvard and the University of Utah suggests people are more likely to behave ethically in the morning than later in the day. It makes sense, when you think about it: Ethical behavior takes discipline, i.e., the willpower to put the interests of others (individuals or groups) ahead of our own. And willpower isn’t limitless; it can be depleted.

The less ethical we are the more selfish we become—that is, the more focused we are on our own needs and desires. But that self-interest can be a powerful motivator in the relationship capital game. (In The Godfather, author Mario Puzo compares Don Corleone’s enthusiasm for doing favors to the Inuit practice of burying provisions along trails to ensure adequate sustenance on the return trip.) Sometimes, the favors we ask of the people in our networks will be just as obviously (or potentially) beneficial to them as to us. And in that case, a late-in-the-day request received through a prism of self-interest could be good for everyone. The only thing better than doing a good turn for a friend is doing a good turn for a friend that will benefit you too.

Gary Belsky, co-founder of the consulting firm Elland Road Partners, writes about business, psychology and sports for Time.com.

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