How I Stay Productive at Conferences

I am writing this post during OSCON, one of the big open-source conferences, which is always a very busy week for me. It is fascinating to watch how people behave during conferences in ways that either help or hinder their productivity. Most of us probably attend conferences at least occasionally, so it is important to find ways to make the most out of our time at the event, while still getting other work done and remaining productive.

Conferences often come with very long days that start with breakfast and move on to sessions, lunches, more sessions and then evening events and after-parties; all of which can leave you feeling exhausted and overworked, if you aren’t careful. Before you start thinking about how to approach the event, you need to think about your goals. Are you there to learn, to network, for press coverage or some other purpose? Most of us probably have overlapping goals for any event, but it really can help to understand what you want to get out of the event.

I’m here at OSCON partly to blog about some of the interesting sessions talking about the community that I manage and to network with other people in the industry. As a result, I needed to attend a few sessions and spend time talking to people, while still finding time to keep up with work and blog about the event. The trade-off is that I spent most of the breaks talking to people while doing my work during times when there weren’t any sessions that I needed to attend.

The key to attending events and getting the most out of them is to stay focused on what is important: Your goals and the purpose for attending in the first place. It can be easy to spend the whole time multitasking — trying to attend sessions and work simultaneously — while not managing to do well at either task. When I attend sessions, I try to ignore or even shut off my email and the social networking streams on my laptop, while leaving a note-taking window open so that I can jot down any key points from the presentation. Admittedly, I’m not perfect, and I find myself checking or responding to email sometimes, but whenever I do that, I become much less engaged in the presentation. On the other hand, I skip some sessions entirely and use that time to catch up on work or blogging. This helps me make sure that I carve out enough time for event activities and my regular work while accomplishing both of them relatively efficiently.

One common mistake I see is when people try to do all of their regular work and attend the conference at the same time. Usually this means neglecting the conference or falling short on sleep. I’ve seen colleagues and friends who fly to a conference in another city and then spend most of their time sitting in on conference calls. If you are going to be spending all of your time attending your regular meetings and doing your regular work you might as well save the company some money and stay home to work. When I attend a conference, I cancel every meeting that I don’t absolutely have to attend and limit the number of non-event meetings. This gives me a break from the regular routine and lets me focus more on the conference. I also try not to work late into the night so that I can get a reasonable amount of sleep to avoid being a zombie during the day. So far this week, I’ve been pretty good, but I’ll admit to pulling a couple of late nights despite my best efforts to get my work done during the day.

What are your favorite tips for staying productive while still getting most out of your conference?

Photo by Flickr user wesleynitsckie used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Generic 2.0 license.