Six Tips for Staying Emotionally and Physically Healthy at Conferences

Rik keynoting SLCC 2011 650

Me keynoting the Second Life Community Convention in 2006

Last weekend, I was at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Los Angeles, an intense, three day gathering of academics, educators, tech providers and funders who work in the digital learning field. The sessions started at 9am with meetings and receptions going late in the evening.

After being at the conference most of the weekend, I took a flight home early Monday morning, went to straight to work, put in a full day’s effort, and went out dancing that night. By Monday night, I was pretty tired, but not exhausted.

How did I do it? Am I superhuman? No, I just have figured out a few things about staying energized and focused while away at long conferences.

Over my long career, I’ve attended probably hundreds of conferences, conventions, and summits around the world. During the first few years, I struggled with staying emotionally centered and mentally agile during these extended work events. After a few days away, I felt drained, anxious, unfocused and homesick.

If you have found yourself in a similar boat, here are some interventions that I’ve found helpful to keep me centered and sane during multi-day conferences. Hopefully, these tips can help you find your own way to take care of yourself during long work events.

1. Stay Active

earbuds and running shoes

Conferences can entail long, long hours of sitting — attending keynotes, panels, workshops and working meals. While you might be intellectually engaged (hopefully), you are physically sedentary. After a couple of days of this, your body will start to push back. For me, that means that I start feeling sluggish, lazy, and haggard. I start needing frequent infusions of caffeine and sugar to keep me semi-alert.

It’s important that you do something physical every day, preferably in the morning before the conference, but wherever you can fit it in. If you hotel has a gym or a pool, plug yourself into one of the cardio machines / torture devices or swim some laps. Better yet, throw on your running shoes and go for a brisk walk, jog, run, or whatever your body can handle.

When I’m traveling for work, I love the opportunity to run around the neighborhood and explore. Being in downtown Los Angeles for DML, my morning runs gave me a good sense of what was around our hotel, spotting neat cafes, galleries, shops, and parks. I got a stronger sense of place and ideas for what I might want to do later.

2. Practice Self-care

travel coffee kit

We all have our routines that we do for ourselves: making a proper cup of tea, singing in the shower, taking a long walk. If you are away from home, practice doing at least one thing for yourself each day that makes you happy.

For me, that’s making myself a perfect cup of coffee. I can’t stand those in-room hotel coffee machines. Most conferences serve at best Starbucks-in-a-box, which is just barely passable in my book. So I bring my own coffee kit with me.

Taking the time each day to make my morning coffee is one of my favorite, most satisfying rituals. I get to walk into the morning plenary with a mugful of fresh coffee that I made, while everyone else is making dew with the bitter, watered down joe from the caterer. It’s the best feeling.

3. Get Out of Your Head


I find conferences mentally exhausting. I’m actively listening, recording, critiquing, debating, synthesizing, and contextualizing for hours on end. It’s a lot of being in my head.
So I give my brain a break. I’ll throw a dance party for one in my hotel room. Or sit quietly and meditate for 10 minutes.
You might take a bath, read a trashy novel, or close your eyes and listen to Wagner. Give yourself something to do that doesn’t involve active mental work and that leaves you feeling refreshed or transported, even for just a few minutes.
(NOTE: there are probably chemicals one could ingest that have this effect. That’s not my cup of tea. So if you choose that route, do so responsibly.)

4. Eat Smart


One of the hardest things for me to do is to turn down free baked goods. I’m a sucker for a cheese danish or a pain au chocolat.
But I know that if I start the morning with a sugary baked treat and coffee, I will start to feel tired around 11am. And if I eat a carb-heavy lunch, I’ll be dragging myself into the afternoon session, barely staying conscious.
During a normal work day, you might be able to get away with having a cheeseburger and fries and then head back to work until quitting time. At a conference, that same meal will weigh on you more, since you aren’t as actively engaged as you are at your regular job.
And don’t forget to drink water! I bring a large water bottle and drink from it all day.

5. Stand Up

Sitting for long periods of time is just not good for you, the experts say. I’m a big fan of standing during any session where it won’t be distracting for others. During morning keynotes, you will find me on my feet in the back of the plenary hall, jotting down notes on my phone. Panel sessions, I’ll do the same, with my laptop open beside me if I need it.

Standing forces me to stay alert and engaged, although it sometimes robs me of the opportunity of networking with people that I’m sitting next to.  Which leads me to my last tip…

6. Get Out!

Sitting inside of artificially lit conference rooms all day is not the healthiest environment. Make sure you take frequent outside breaks to get some fresh air, feel the sun on your face, and check out the world around you. It’s important for keeping your circadian rhythm in sync, and recharging your batteries before diving back into the fray.
I like to organize lunchtime outings with folks I want to spend time with at the conference. That way I get some sunshine, socialize, and get mentally away from the conference for a spell. Often the most productive conversations and connections happen then.

These are just a few tips that have helped me to be productive and energized when at multi-day work events. Of course, YMMV. Feel free to post in the comments how you survive long conferences. I’m always on the lookout for more tips and strategies.

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