I spent most of the first two weeks of May attending three consecutive conferences – the Marketo Marketing Nation Summit, Unleash by Outreach and then the SiriusDecisions Summit.  I settled back into the office early this week exhausted by also flush with ideas, notes, follow-ups, partner/prospect opportunities and more.

Attending any event successfully requires premeditation on why you’re there and where to spend your time, as well as a keen ability to find and take advantage of serendipitous moments, meetings and opportunities.

Simultaneously, work from the home office rarely slows down and if you have family back home, they probably want to hear from you once in awhile too.

In summary, business travel and conferences in particular can be mentally exhausting.  And with the best events, a combination of content and networking has you constantly on the run, facing an ongoing feed of information to digest, where you are focused on capturing information vs processing it on the fly, taking down notes and ideas in a variety of formats.

When I get back from conferences like this, it’s critical that I take time to completely unpack mentally.  This requires setting aside plenty of time to do so but also having a strategy to complete it.

Below is a “mental unpack” checklist I use regularly.  Knowing I have this in place afterward helps me capture and keep more from the event itself.

  • Collect and process notes from everywhere:  I have two notebooks I travel with – one a letter-sized leather folio for more formal sit-down meetings plus a medium-sized Moleskine notebook that’s easier to walk with.  I end up taking notes in both of these plus often will have other notes on scraps of paper that get shoved into a manilla folder to take home.  I’ve found over time that having a single notebook for an entire conference just isn’t feasible, so I take notes where I can and trust my mental unpack time to process it all.
  • Schedule follow-up: Going back through my meeting schedule reminds me where I need to do any follow-up, where  may owe somebody something, where I might need to update CRM with a partner or deal insight, etc.
  • Business cards:  I like collecting cards from people I’ve met with, most of which are new contacts but some are people I know already (on whose card I put quick notes to remind me of the conversation context and/or something I need to send them).  If someone doesn’t have a card, I’ll often use my own to write down their name and context so I can process it later.
  • Sponsor list:  If you had a conversation with someone on the show floor but failed to turn it into a written to-do, a quick scan of the sponsor list can refresh your memory.  I can’t remember the last time I did this post-conference and didn’t find at least 1-2 vendors I had missed in my other to-do notes.
  • Photos in your smartphone:  Sometimes all I really need is a picture of something to remember the correct follow-up or action later.  I’ll take pictures of people’s name badges to remind me to follow-up, for example.  Or I’ll take a picture of a vendor’s product one-sheet if I don’t really want to carry it around with me (and can just as easily read it online later).
  • Process and triage to-do’s:  Just like any action items I may capture any given day, some can be done right away (because they are urgent or because they take two minutes or less to complete), some go on my short-term to-do list to get done over the next few days, and others go on a longer-term project list that I review weekly.  Regardless of your particular system, I find it’s critical to triage all to-do’s within a day or two of the conference ending to optimize their value/impact.
  • Read (or re-read) all notes to identify new ideas & opportunities:  Occasionally I’m in a session that’s so good, I’m literally just focused on writing down as much as I can without thinking about the content’s implications.  As long as I capture the content (or my reaction to it), I can process that later.  So it’s therefore critical that you refresh your memory of those notes so you can subsequently convert them into to-do’s and projects moving forward.  Some of these might be long-term projects you don’t want to tackle right away, but if the kernel stays in your notes (notes by the way that likely won’t see the light of day again anytime soon) they’re not doing you much good.


Anyway, that’s what works for me.

I’d love to hear examples of any “mental unpacking” best practices you have from conferences or other business travel.