The spring conference season is upon us, and I’m already feeling both excited and anxious about it.
I go to a lot of conferences. I love conferences. Learning from others’ experience, meeting new people, seeing old friends, simply enjoying a change of work environment from the usual desk/office space… These are all Good Things and I enjoy them. Honestly, I do.
Nevertheless, whether as a speaker or as an attendee, I find most conferences quite stressful. It’s got little to do with how well organised the event is in general (though that does make a difference, of course). It’s mainly because spending all day, every day, for the entire day or (worse!) several days in a row in the company of lots of other people is simply extremely draining.
Consider for a moment what conferences involve:
- spending hours and hours following a schedule that someone else designed
- feeling obliged to attend certain sessions (perhaps because they’re given by certain important people, or because they’re particularly relevant to a project you’re working on)
- having breakfast with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well, or who you normally see only at the office/school, long after you’ve had breakfast in the comfort of your own home)… every day…
- having lunch with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well)… every day…
- having dinner with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well)… every day… (Are you sensing a trend here? Very often, meal “breaks” are not really breaks, from an introvert’s point of view.)
- attending evening events, especially in order to socialise with people you’d like to meet or people you only get to see once a year (like at IATEFL)
- having nowhere to sit where you definitely won’t be interrupted by someone who wants to talk (except – maybe – a locked toilet cubicle)
- having countless conversations about things that other people are passionate about, that other people think are important, that other people have been dying to talk about – in short, having your headspace invaded by other people’s armies of thoughts
- meanwhile, trying to remember and reflect on all the things you’ve seen and heard in conference sessions so far
- wanting to see people and presentations that are all happening at the same time and struggling to decide how to choose/prioritise
- resolving to catch up later (e.g. via recordings/blogposts) on all the sessions you had to miss (see point above)
In short, although conferences are fun events with lots of interesting stuff to learn and interesting people to meet, they are inevitably also long stretches of time where literally every minute from waking to sleeping is occupied by being around other people, often listening/watching very intently so that you don’t miss anything/anyone that you’ll never/rarely get another chance to see.
Every minute, there are demands on your attention, your memory and your energy. Every minute, you are potentially making an impression on someone new. Every minute, you’re wondering when you’ll next get to sit somewhere quiet and just digest everything that’s going on around you. And every minute, you remember that this break time is probably still hours, or even days, away.
Wow. I feel tired just writing all that.
In describing the world from a more introverted perspective, I find myself using one adjective more than any other: draining. It’s so perfectly descriptive of the feeling I get: surely, I must have had a full store of energy and enthusiasm to begin with… but before long, I can’t even remember ever having had it. As the day(s) go(es) on, my energy just slowly seeps away. And maddeningly, I can see it happening, like water gradually swirling down the drain after a bath, and I feel powerless to prevent it.
But there are things I can do. To stop a bathtub from draining, you can put the plug back in. Is there a mental/emotional equivalent? I think so…
At last year’s IATEFL conference, I decided to start trying some new strategies for coping with the overwhelming exhaustion of the week. I’m sharing these here in the hopes that I’ll remember to do them at IATEFL next month, and that perhaps they’ll help someone else!
What introverts can do to survive/mitigate conference mania
1. At least 2 weeks before the conference (when you’re not yet feeling exhausted at the mere thought of it approaching), go carefully through the programme. Identify sessions you want to attend and use a ranking system to prioritise them:
- Tier 1 = you absolutely must attend. No arguments. (For example: because you’re the one giving the presentation!)
- Tier 2 = you’d really like to attend. You’ll aim to be there.
- Tier 3 = looks interesting, but if you suddenly found yourself desperate for a break, you could disappear somewhere quiet during this session and not be too upset/somehow disadvantaged.
You could potentially add other categories/tiers as you see fit, but I think these are the three most important ones.
2. Colour-code these on a one-day-per-page print-out and keep it with you throughout the conference. If the conference programme doesn’t include a page-per-day mini-schedule, make your own in Microsoft Word and print that.
The third tier is crucial. Sometimes, I’m put on the spot during a conference by someone asking an innocent “Are you free now?” My tendency is often to panic and equate “well, I’m not attending a session” with “sure, I’m free to talk to you until I have another session to attend”, meaning I miss out on some much-needed break time. The third tier of colour-coding helps me avoid this. It allows me to relax during the conference by showing me at a glance when I will be able to excuse myself for a little while if necessary – i.e. if I find myself feeling too exhausted and overwhelmed to pay attention to anything outside my own head.
Here’s how a colour-coded conference planner might look when complete:
3. Acknowledge that there will be some times during the conference when you must be available for meetings, general mingling, etc. In other words, remember that if you’re attending a conference in any kind of professional capacity (as opposed to for general personal interest), you can’t just always be “in a session” or “AWOL” (probably hiding in your hotel room or a toilet cubicle). Well ahead of time, plan slots during the conference for some general “face time” and colour-code it as Tier 1, so that you don’t neglect your professional duties and you can work break times around this time.
4. Wake up early enough to have a morning routine which allows at least an hour all to yourself. This means at least an hour doing things that are not essential pre-conference-day activities (like eating or washing or checking emails). If you also plan to eat breakfast, shower and check/respond to emails, and the conference starts at 9am, this might mean getting up between 6 and 7; but as far as I’m concerned, it’s totally worth it.
Personally, in my “me hour” I like to do 30 mins of yoga and 30 mins walking/jogging outside the hotel to get some fresh air and daylight, as I might not have any for the rest of the day and I know that these are important for my mental health. I really believe this first hour of the day is crucial to spend awake, doing things that are quiet and private, even if you’ve been up late the night before and you’re tired. You have 2 choices in the morning: stay asleep for an extra hour, or be awake and alone for an extra hour. I’ve tried both and ultimately, my mental health and mood throughout the day are both improved more by the latter option of how to spend that hour.
5. Similarly, wake up early enough to have breakfast alone. I guess other people might not mind that much, but breakfast is one meal I just can’t eat while talking to people. I need time to wake up gradually and think about the day ahead without also having to make conversation.