The Best System for Managing Your Network

I'll admit that the phrase “managing your network” makes me uncomfortable. It can seem inauthentic and impersonal. Yet there’s something that makes me feel much worse: losing touch with people I like.

After decades of missing opportunities and missing chances for deeper relationships, I’ve finally come upon a simple system that works for me and might help you too.

When “managing your network” is a good thing

Even the most thoughtful, social, generous people make the mistake of not keeping in touch with people in their network. Whether you’re trying to build a relationship with someone you just met or further develop relationships with family, friends and colleagues, the pattern is the same. Once the person is out of sight, they’re out of mind, and you don’t pay attention until someone or some thing prompts you to act, or until you need a favor.

If this pattern is familiar to you, there's no need to feel bad. You just don’t have the habit or system for regularly keeping in touch with people. It’s something I wrote about in chapter 14 of Working Out Loud:

“Even people who say they know networking is important will routinely tell me, “I know I should follow up, but I don’t.” Maintaining a relationship list will solve that problem. Start with a simple list...Then schedule a time once a week to look at it and update it. It might take ten minutes per week. The practice of reviewing that list will help you to be mindful of the relationships you want to invest in and will relieve you of the need to keep all your intended follow-ups in your head.

My own experiments

It took me several attempts before I came upon a system that works for me. At first I tried spreadsheets, but the information quickly grew stale and updating it felt like a data entry task. I tried notebooks but didn’t always have them handy. I tried individual pieces of paper but they were too much work to rewrite regularly. Friends suggested Evernote and other apps, but I using them never became a habit.

Now, I use index cards.

Yes, I know it’s the 21st century and the Rolodex is no longer in fashion. But this simple system works for me and here’s why.

Managing your relationship list

Managing your relationship list

Systematic and still authentic

In my Working Out Loud circle, my goal is to deepen relationships with people and organizations who want to spread the practice. So on each card I write the name of a person or organization in my network along with just two other bits of information:

  1. The last contribution I made and the date I made it.
  2. The date I’d like to make another contribution and what that might be.

Then I keep the cards sorted by the date for a next action. The stack is small enough that I can carry it with me in my backpack. If I interact with someone on my list, I’ll update the card. If a card gets full or messy, I’ll rewrite it with just the latest, most relevant information.

Each week, instead of going through everyone on my relationship list every time and thinking of a possible contribution, I only need to go through a few cards that already have helpful reminders. If I notice that someone hasn’t responded, I’ll think of other things I could do and record a date a bit farther out for a different kind of contribution.

Having a simple, convenient system and going through it regularly means I’ll rarely lose touch with someone in my network. And when I’m holding that one card for the one person or organization,it feels different than looking at a row in a crowded spreadsheet. For that moment, I’m focused just on them.

Finding your own best system

It turns out that managing contacts is as idiosyncratic as managing your todo list. While some ways are better than others, there is no single ideal way.

The best system is one that works for you. One that actually helps you to be mindful of people on it and to make progress deepening relationships, one that’s easy and perhaps even sparks joy.

Managing your network isn’t an administrative task. It’s a personal one. Every single time I go though those cards and take some action - every single time - I feel better about those relationships and about progress towards my goal. That's a powerful practice to carry around with you.

Do you manage your network? If you have a system that works for you, please share it in the comments.