12 tips to get the most out of a conference without feeling overwhelmed and burned out

It is that time of the year again where we all travel around the world, showcase our work and broaden our network. It is conference season. I recently attended the Australian Marine Science Association (AMSA) conference in Cairns. It was the first in-person conference of my PhD and I had a great time.

Me and my poster at AMSA22.

However, let’s be honest: as inspiring and stimulating these conferences can be, they are also intense at the best of times. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), so these conferences can be a lot to handle. Being an HSP means that my central nervous system is more sensitive than the average person as a result of some unique differences in my brain. I kind of see myself as a human sponge – I soak up everything that is happening in my surroundings. It is a pretty common thing – in fact, about 20% of the human population is highly sensitive.

Being highly sensitive can be a great asset – I see small details and make connections that others may overlook, I pick up on emotional cues, and process things very deeply. However, along with these benefits to being an HSP come some disadvantages. Because I see, feel and hear everything that is happening around me, I get easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud sounds, intense smells and other people’s emotions. And you get a lot of that at a conference.

So how do you get the most out of a conference without getting overwhelmed and burned out (as an HSP)? Here are 12 tips based on my recent experience:

1. Rest and avoid unnecessary stimuli before the conference

When you attend a conference, you better go prepared. Just like you make sure you’ve practiced your talk and printed your poster, the days before the conference can make or break your conference experience. In the days leading up to the big event, it is wise to take extra good care of yourself. Get some extra sleep, eat healthy food, do some light exercise and try to avoid intense social events. Eat, sleep, rest, repeat. I kind of see it as completely emptying my bucket of sensory input, so that when the conference starts, the bucket doesn’t immediately spill over.

2. Identify your conference goals

Everyone goes to a conference with a different goal. Setting a goal before the conference can really help to not get lost in everything that you can see or do.

  • Do you want to learn something new? What exactly do you want to learn and which talk or person could help you master that skill?
  • Find a solution to a research or technical problem? Who or what at the conference can help you solve it?
  • Looking for a job? Are there people attending the conference who you would be interested in working with?
3. Prepare an elevator pitch

While it is anyway smart to prepare an elevator pitch from a professional point of view, it also helps you when everything just gets a little bit too much. Imagine having spent a day listening to talks and talking to strangers. You’re tired and your brain is full. The only thing you want to do is to go to your hotel room and sit in silence. At that exact moment you get introduced to someone you’ve been wanting to talk to but didn’t have the chance yet. Having a strong and short elevator pitch prepared can help you make a great impression without having to use any of that last bit of brain power that you have left.

4. Don’t stay at the conference hotel

Staying at the conference hotel is the most straightforward and easy choice. It is close to the conference, and is saves you time getting to the conference venue. While this seems great, and you can a bit more extra sleep in after a few too many beers with your colleagues, it also keeps you in that ‘work’ environment 24h per day. You easily run into people from the conference during breakfast or when you’re just having a quiet drink at the bar. This makes it hard to take a real break from the conference and properly rest. A quiet hotel in the area is a better option to get that rest you’ll desperately need. Plus, a little walk to the conference in the morning is great to mentally prepare for the day.

5. Get a private room

While sharing a room with some of your fellow students can be fun and cheaper than a private room, it also makes it hard to get some alone time. Getting that alone time in the morning and evening will help you recharge for another busy day. If a private room is too expensive and just not an option, try to create some alone time. Get up before everyone else is awake, skip a session and go back to the hotel for an hour or two during the day, or go to bed while the rest is still downing their beers at the local pub.

6. Prioritise your own needs

I often feel guilty for wanting to leave social events much earlier than my friends or colleagues. I just operate differently and it has nothing to do with me not enjoying spending time with them. There are a lot of opportunities for social activities at conferences and it’s important to check in with yourself to see if an activity is compromising your need to take care of yourself. It’s okay to hit pause and excuse yourself. It’s not rude, it’s necessary to avoid feeling like sh*t the next day.

7. Take small breaks in nature during the day

There are numerous studies showing that spending time in nature can improve your mental health. Nature has a calming effect and it’s the perfect environment to clear your mind and reset. So instead of spending your lunch break or evenings discussing more science or business, why not go for a break in nature. Perhaps there’s a forest or beach nearby or even a little park. Any place with trees or other elements of nature will work. Leave your phone in your bag and just quietly focus on everything you see, hear and smell. Trust me, you’ll feel much better afterwards.

8. Dress for success

No, this doesn’t mean putting on your fanciest dress or suit. Instead wear something that makes you feel beautiful, confident and most of all comfortable. Pants that are too tight or shoes that are painful to wear can really affect how you feel mentally. It’s also smart to bring a jumper or jacket in case the air conditioning is blasting at Antarctic temperatures.

9. Find your conference anchor

Networking and meeting new people are exhausting. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with no opportunity for some quiet alone time, then make sure you find your conference anchor. This is your go-to person that you feel comfortable around. Spending some time with this person can help you overcome those moments where you really don’t feel like talking to strangers.

If you’re attending the conference with people from your lab or uni, great! You probably already know them quite well, so no need for the awkward introductory conversation. If you’re flying solo, look for others who are attending the conference alone. Make a confident but friendly introduction and they are probably going to be as happy to talk to you as you are to talk to them.

10. Keep your survival kit with you at all times

People often make fun of me for taking my backpack with me everywhere I go. It holds all my essentials and it makes me feel safe and comfortable knowing that I have it with me at all times. It always contains a water bottle, mints, lip balm, tissues, sunglasses and a snack for when I get hungry (or hangry). Whatever is important for you, make sure you bring it to the conference.

11. Focus on creating authentic relationships with just one or two people

When I attended the conference a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a lot of people were running around trying to talk to as many new people as possible. It almost seemed as if they felt a sense of victory depending on how many connections they made. Honestly, I think it usually doesn’t come across as very genuine and I don’t like that at all. This approach will undoubtedly work for some people, but I went into this conference with a different approach. Instead of talking to as many people as I possibly could, I focused on spending more time with a few people that I felt could help me with my PhD and my career after getting that Dr. title. I believe that this approach gave me far more value and allowed me to build more authentic relationships.

12. Recharge after the conference

Last but not least: take one or two days to rest and digest everything that you heard and learned during the conference. As inspired as you may feel, you will put that knowledge to a better use if you take your time to process everything instead of diving headfirst back into work. Plenty of sleep and some quiet time in nature should do the trick.

I hope these tips help and please let me know if you have more!

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