What 2017’s IT conferences taught me about time management

Like most IT pros, I tend to be incredibly busy, and it often seems that there are just not enough hours in a day. Most of the time I seem to be able to keep pace with the demands for my time, but 2017’s series of IT conferences nearly pushed me to the breaking point. I am happy to say, however, that I managed to keep my head above water through everything (barely), and I learned some valuable lessons about time management in the process.

So what was it about the 2017 season of IT conferences that was so different than previous years? For one thing, it was the duration. I spent a solid two months on the road, coming home between trips just long enough to do some laundry.

More than anything else, however, the thing that made this year’s conference season so different was that it was far more demanding than past years. IT conferences are always hectic for me. I usually have lots of client meetings, press briefings, and educational sessions to attend. On top of that, I still have my normal work to get done, so I end up writing lots of blog posts after hours.

IT Conferences

During one of this year’s IT conferences, I was also busy preparing for an upcoming parabolic flight campaign in which I would be testing spacesuits while weightless. Because of the timing, I had to attend lots of after-hours conference calls, and I spent many hours each night working on risk-mitigation reports and other required paperwork. The end result was that I ended up pulling three all-nighters during a single week.

I was so exhausted by the end of that week that I could barely even function. Once I was finally back home and had a bit of time to recover, I took some time to think about the way that things had gone. I had managed to get everything done, but I had also pushed myself to the point that I was jeopardizing my own health. I knew that I needed a better plan for time management the next time that my schedule gets to be overwhelming. Here is what I came up with.

Plan for task prioritization

Pretty much every article that I have ever read about time management says to prioritize tasks, starting with the most important. The question that I have never seen these articles answer is how tasks should be prioritized when they are all important. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits all answer to this question. I approach prioritization differently depending on the duration and difficulty of the task.

If there are a lot of important things to get done within a very short amount of time, then I try to begin by taking on the tasks that I can complete the most quickly. That gives me the ability to make as many people happy as possible upfront, and it creates a sense of accomplishment early in the day. It also keeps me from getting bogged down by a time-consuming task, which might prevent me from getting all of my other tasks done.

If on the other hand, the tasks are spread out over a longer period of time (such as a few days), then I try to arrange the tasks in a way that prevents exhaustion. I might, for example, try to evenly distribute the difficult tasks across the available time period so as to avoid having to do them all on the same day.

Avoid time-wasting activities

There are a million things competing for our attention on a daily basis, and it is important to not to end up wasting time on things that do not deliver results. For example, I recently read an article claiming that the average worker spends six hours a day answering emails. Realizing that I, too, spend way too much time engaged in seemingly endless email conversations, I have since turned off the pop-up preview for new messages, and have begun limiting the number of times per day that I check email.

The same basic concept of avoiding time-wasting activities also applies to IT conferences. At most of the conferences that I have been to, there are countless amusing diversions waiting in the expo hall. Vendors will do anything to get attendees to flock to their booths. I’ve seen everything in expo halls from games of skill to celebrity appearances to chocolate-covered bacon being passed out.

While the occasional trip to the expo hall may be unavoidable, it is important to manage your time wisely, and not get sucked into the carnival of distractions (unless you have the time, in which case I am all in favor of having some fun).

Try not to skip meals at IT conferences

IT conferences

I have to admit that this is one area in which I failed miserably at some of this year’s IT conferences. I never eat breakfast while I am on the road because healthy, vegetarian breakfasts are really tough to come by. Even so, I found myself constantly missing lunch, too. Most days, I had meetings scheduled and by the time everything wrapped up, lunch was over. In other situations, the lines were just too long and I felt like I couldn’t spare the time to wait in line. On a few occasions, I found myself falling into the same trap with dinner. Maybe there was too much traffic, or the restaurant that I had planned on going to had a long wait. Whatever the reason, I missed a lot of meals.

Although skipping lots of meals did help me to steal a bit of extra time that I was able to use to get things done, I ultimately did not do myself any favors. Lack of food was probably one of the main reasons why I ended up suffering from such extreme exhaustion. If I had it to do over again, I would have planned ahead and at least gotten carryout from somewhere or ordered room service.

Look for effective ways to multitask

A lot of time management articles say that multitasking is a bad thing and that you will get much better results if you are able to focus your full attention on the task at hand. I will be the first to admit that focus has its place. Right now, for instance, all of my attention is focused on writing this article. I am not doing anything else but writing. Even so, there are times when it makes sense to multitask.

IT conferences usually involve lots of walking, and I found that I could take care of short phone calls while walking between buildings. Likewise, when I was on a conference call in my room, I found that I could sometimes take care of other tasks while on the call. I’m not talking about anything that requires significant focus or concentration, but rather mundane and mindless tasks, such as ironing my clothes for the next day, or organizing my suitcase for the trip home.

Beware of energy drinks

Let me just say up front that I am a big believer in energy drinks. I literally have cases of Monster Energy in my garage right now, and I once asked a promoter to see if they could get one of the other energy drink companies to be one of the sponsors for one of my IT speaking tours. I often refer to energy drinks as “productivity in a can.” Having said that, however, there is a limit to what energy drinks can do.

The problem with energy drinks is that they come with a trade-off. An energy drink might give you a big boost now, but it may cause you to feel even more tired later on. I have also found that, at least for me, energy drinks begin to lose their effectiveness when I overdo it. Besides, even the best energy drink in the world is not a substitute for a good night’s sleep.

Don’t be afraid to abandon your morning routine

One last pointer that I will pass along is to not be afraid to abandon your morning routine when necessary. When I am at home, I like to ease into my morning by having a cup of coffee and catching up on a few favorite websites. Even though these websites are educational, it is easy to spend an hour or more reading the latest content. On most days that isn’t an issue, but when things get really busy the time spent on that comfortable morning routine could be better used for other things.

Look for shortcuts

The old cliché “work smarter, not harder” sometimes has its place, but when its crunch time there is no substitute for a solid work ethic. Sometimes, though, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done that needs to be done, and so you have to look for shortcuts that will help you to get the job done within the time allotted.

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