I just spent three days at my first in-person conference in the Covid era. It was my tenth time attending this particular conference and I was so excited to be back, in person, seeing many customers and business friends for the first time in more than two years. I jammed my schedule with dinners, coffees, meet and greets, and sessions. Because it was on the West Coast, I set my schedule to connect with my East Coast team starting at 5:30am, then attend the conference, something I did pre-Covid as well, even though most nights don’t end until midnight.
On the last day, I went to an event at 5pm and then there was a short gap before the closing dinner. I went back to my room to grab a jacket and as I checked my email, a wave of exhaustion hit. I decided the cure was a short disco nap. I woke up at midnight, no memory of turning off the alarm when it went off.
It turns out that, as a result of Covid, socializing is much more exhausting than it used to be, even for hard core extroverts like me. Researchers point to several reasons. First, our socializing skills are like muscles and they are out of shape. Second, Covid caused us to equate being around people with the need to be vigilant. So our nervous system is still on overdrive every time we encounter someone. Third, our social baselines have changed, which is the amount of time we have before socializing leaves us exhausted. Prior to Covid, that was the major difference between introverts and extroverts - the baseline. I now have much more understanding of what it’s like to be an introvert at a conference.
So as you also begin to embark on your first conferences or all-day events, what advice do the experts give and what did I learn?
- Practice. If you have an important conference coming up, make sure you get out to some other networking events in advance to give your social muscles a chance to strengthen. I realize now that a few networking dinners in the weeks leading up to the conference were critical for making it through most of the conference.
- Schedule more down-time or breaks. Give your brain a chance to relax and recharge more frequently than you have in the past. I definitely over jammed my schedule. Next week I have an all day meet and greet event and have added a few more breaks.
- Maintain healthy habits. Get enough sleep, exercise and eat healthy. I learned my lesson particularly on the sleep front. After 19 months of 7 hours a night, I should have started my days later or gone to bed earlier.
- Set your own boundaries. You may still be uncomfortable with certain interactions. Just let people you are meeting know that you prefer to eat outside, avoid crowded bars, or have no interest in shaking hands. I was grateful that the conference gave us stickers for our badge to indicate how we wanted to greet each other. It was only at that moment I realized I was fine with hugs from people I knew, but had no interest in handshakes from anyone. Elbow bump sticker to the rescue.
I loved being back in person, but a conference still doesn’t feel “normal”. We are just not the same either. Adapting your approach, and being patient with yourself, will enable you to take all the positives that these events have to offer and hopefully avoid an unexpected crash.