This past week I spent my mornings in Osaka, Japan, and my afternoons at home. How did I accomplish this? Virtual conferencing! This bi-annual in-person conference was originally scheduled for May 2020. As the date drew near, the organizers optimistically pushed it to mid-October, hoping the pandemic would have subsided to allow us to travel safely to Japan in the fall. Not surprisingly, they ultimately made the call to convert it to a virtual affair at the end of the summer.
Although going to Japan is on my bucket list, the beauty of a virtual conference is the lack of travel. Besides being easier on the environment, it also makes conferences more accessible – one can attend for the price of admission only. Between travel expenses and time away, in-person conferences can cost my project thousands of dollars per person, not to mention the time on my calendar to get there, be present, get home and then catch up on all of the work missed.
With the session schedule released, I marked my calendar, got my own video submitted, and prepared to attend the conference. Now that I’ve been through it, here are the things I will do differently next time.
1. I marked my calendar, but I didn’t BLOCK my calendar
The conference took place 3 hours every day, M-F starting at 7 am local time. I scheduled it like I scheduled all obligations on my calendar. What I didn’t do was look at what I should take off my calendar.
If I had physically traveled to Japan, I would have literally cleared my calendar. The only things that would have been allowed on my calendar would have been items where my participation was critical. My home obligations would have been offloaded to my spouse because I would have been in another country.
Why was this a problem? Simply put: it took too much energy to put in a full day of work, full conference participation, and all of my home obligations.
For the next virtual conference, I’ll put it on my calendar and then assess other calendar obligations with the following hierarchy: (1) my presence is essential (e.g., teaching obligations); (2) not doing this will make incredibly hard when I get “back”; and (3) this is icing and a no right now. Looking back at how I made these decisions for pre-COVID conferences, that’s pretty much what I did, and post-COVID life shouldn’t change that.
2. I tried to participate fully at 1.5x speed
The conference included live and asynchronous portions. In the gaps of my already rather full calendar (that included the extra 3 hours of being present for the live portions), I tried to listen to the asynchronous talks I wanted to hear at 1.5x speed (ok, I’ll admit to even 2.0x providing it was understandable). I’ll also admit to doing this while cooking dinner, eating lunch, answering email (how?), and folding laundry.
Why was this a problem? Simply put: Instead of doing one thing well, I was doing a lot of things not well. The science shows (and I now have proven to myself) that multitasking is basically non-tasking.
For the next virtual conference with asynchronous options, I will carve out time in my day to listen. I will treat that time with the respect it deserves. Master Yoda once said: “Do or don’t do; there is no try.” He’s not wrong. Trying to do all the things led to information overload with no ability to process.
3. I really didn’t act as if I was participating in a conference
I think the conversation was, “I have this thing from 7-10 every morning this week”. Since March, we’ve shared our home office, and I take pride in how we manage to balance priorities of who gets to talk in the office at any given moment. However, I didn’t look carefully into who takes our daughter to the orthodontist or get her flu shot or any of the other parental responsibilities we now share in this work-from-home life.
I realize now that I probably wouldn’t have scheduled these appointments this week if I was traveling. They weren’t urgent, and by scheduling it the week of the conference, I added a time-sensitive demand to our list without really factoring in which adult would be available.
Why was this a problem? Simply put: I put my spouse on the spot for being responsible for things that weren’t time-critical. If I had traveled, it would have been on them for sure, but these were not “pants on fire” critical items and could have happened any other week.
When scheduling the next set of appointments, I will ask myself if it’s critical that it happens that week. If it qualifies as critical, I’ll rope in my spouse to check their calendar. If it does not, I’ll just pretend I’m out of town and pick another week.
Virtual conferences are great but…
I’ve learned that prioritization is still critical, even if I’m not physically traveling anywhere.