Six Lessons from My Conference Marathon

June 6, 2018

I recently participated in (including presenting at!) three conferences in the course of three weeks, and anyone who has attended even one will tell you that getting the most out of a conference experience requires planning and self-knowledge. Set yourself up to come back to your work refreshed and with some new ideas to try out, a handful of business cards, (always) a tote-bag of swag t-shirts, and zero regrets.

Optimize for happiness at your next conference

Attending conferences is by far one of the best ways to meet people in your field and be introduced to concepts that you may not see in your daily work. I try to be efficient, and (downside to perfectionism) this can make decision-making difficult. I’ve found, in situations with many good choices, it’s helpful to make the choice that I expect I will regret the least. This is my “golden rule” of conference decision-making.

1. Define your own goals

When every choice you make means missing something else, it can be really helpful to set your own goals ahead of time. For example, the first time I attended PyCon, I spent most of my time attending talks and sessions. I only wandered onto the expo floor after I learned that some folks had I gotten O'Reilly coloring books, and, no, I had not been fast enough to get one of my own.

This year, I decided to attend only a small number of sessions, because now I knew I would be almost as happy seeing them online. Instead, I spent most of my time talking to people, some of whom I now consider friends. I felt I had “conferenced” to my fullest each time, and I was only able to do that because I had started the week with a plan for what I would compromise on and what I would prioritize. I still chuckle to myself when I remember that it was a coloring book that dragged me into the expo hall/hallway track. (And yes, during my latest trip around the expo hall, the O’Reilly booth was one of the first on my list.)

2. Prepare yourself for a deluge of new ideas

It’s far easier to be ready for new ideas while sitting at your desk, tea and notebook in hand, anticipating new challenges. When you’re traveling and feeling overloaded, learning can be difficult. At home, we’re likely to say “my brain is full,” and do whatever it takes to for us to come back to the problem fresher. At a conference, it rarely feels there is time and space to refresh. I’ve found that each time I attempt to push my understanding day-in-and-day-out for that length of time, I’m vulnerable to all-or-nothing thinking (when things are going well: “this is learning, and I’m doing great!”; once I see something confusing: ”ohno, I don’t even know how to approach this”).

I’ve found a few things I can do to ease this feeling:

3. Make (purposefully low-pressure) conversation

Everyone knows a few people that they enjoy running into, so aspire to be that person! Consider opening a conversation by asking what a person looks forward to at the conference as a low-pressure alternative to “tell me about you [your career]”. Regardless of their work/life situation, or how ready they feel to give an elevator pitch, everyone comes to a conference excited about something. By putting other people at ease, you’ll have more candid conversations and everyone will walk away with a smile on their face.

4. Maintain routines

Even the small adjustments you make to be comfortable in your daily life can make a big difference. Think about your typical food needs (I’m usually carrying a sandwich bag of nuts), comfort items (falling asleep is so much easier with an eye mask), and any self-care gear that you use regularly. I keep a list and update it each time I realize that, yes, I did forget something. If you’re starting your own list, you can use this as inspiration.

5. Keep a wish list

I take note of what I wished I had brought or saw other people bring and thought “that’s genius”.

Next time, I plan to bring:

6. Prepare for the possible “con-drop”

When you attend a conference, you’re interrupting your “normal” and replacing it with a deluge of new ideas, opportunities, and the sense that we have to be “on” as much as possible. There are many reasons to feel overwhelmed, especially if you start to see practices at work or in yourself that you now realize aren’t ideal but don’t feel you can implement new patterns. It’s important to think about the space you need for yourself after this kind of experience.

I wish you a happy and well-prepared conference season!