A friend that I have known for nearly 20 years, almost entirely from on-the-road, asked a bunch of people last week—while we were at NANOG 87 —about how introverts manage conference travel. Now, maybe he wasn’t asking for advice for himself, but after responding to the question my next thought was “if he hasn’t figured this out after all these years, how many people early in their careers are having a hard time managing travel overload?”
25 years ago when I started going to conferences I was convinced I had to be available for and engaged in all the things. I loved meeting people, talking shop, and learned a ton from what I’ve come to know as “the hallway track.” I would stay out late, get up early, and sit around in the lobby when I didn’t have a specific thing on, because that’s where you could run into other people and catch up with anything you’d missed, hear about dinner plans, or just strike up an interesting conversation. It was one part FOMO, two parts obsessively making sure my employer got their money’s worth from my trip so that they’d be inclined to send me back.
I’ve often described myself as a “gregarious introvert”, which is just another way of expressing the idea that the distinction between introvert and extrovert is really just whether they are drained or energized by social interaction. So, this was hard work for me, and it started in late ‘90s when I was attending LISA; I would come home an absolute wreck.
Things are just picking up for me post-pandemic, but in the late 2010’s my average was about 10 weeks a year on the road. At my peak I was doing closer to 20 weeks.
So, take this article as unsolicited advice, hard won by someone with more than twenty years of experience traveling to conferences large and small, about how to survive without completely exhausting yourself for your return home.
It seems obvious, but taking breaks at conferences can be hard to do unless you plan for it. There are often bits of intentional downtime built into every day, if only just for people to get water, have bathroom breaks, and do the little bits of email management they have to do to keep the office happy. If you have the same kind of dedication [cough FOMO] I did, then it’s easy to miss these breaks because you’re trying to be around in case an interesting group of people is making dinner plans or something.
If it’s not clear when it’s “safe” to take these time outs without missing things, ask some of the people you’re trying to hang out with when they plan to go read email and stuff, and coordinate.
Even if you don’t have day-job to do, find somewhere quiet to sit for 10 minutes and recharge.
Take a Night Off
In a week-long conference, I try very hard to have at least one night, usually right in the middle, where there are zero expectations on my time. I don’t plan meetings, I don’t join large gatherings. Once the on-agenda part of the day is done I may do a bit of the hallway track, but after that I either grab dinner alone or just with two or three friends that I can be myself with. Either somewhere near the hotel, or actually in my room (on a budget, a sandwich from a local shop can be carried up, or you can call a food delivery service to meet you in the lobby).
I go to my room after dinner (or for dinner) and relax. You can read a book. Watch a movie or stream some TV. Play a video game, or write fanfic, or update your blog. Whatever you normally do to relax that you can also do on the road.
Set Boundaries At Home
After-travel can be important too. When my partner and I moved in, we had a long chat about how to make sure we each had the space we needed. I was working from home full time, she was starting to work from home more often, and so being in each other’s faces too much was a potential issue. That sort of conversation is good to have anyway, but the way this applies to conference travel is that travel for work was already a major part of my life. I made it clear I’d need a day or two after a trip to decompress. We would try to keep those first couple of nights free of parties, family gatherings, friends over for dinner, etc.
For those young enough to still live at home with your parents, I know setting those kinds of restrictions isn’t always possible. Try anyway. If you have roommates it shouldn’t be too hard to just let them know you’re likely to decline invites for anything right after a trip. If you’re my age and have kids.. well.. I’m very sorry but I can’t help you with that.
#100DaysToOffload article 3 of 100