I was at a conference this last week; I can confidently say I accomplished more and enjoyed the experience more than any other conference I've been to. I've been to a couple other smallish conferences like this before, but this time I went in knowing more people and confident enough in my science to reach out and network more than I have before. I also did a lot of prep work and managed my energy levels well, which helped a lot.
I spent the week prior to the conference preparing to meet people, in much more depth than I'd done previously. I read through the list of conference attendees and presentations, and planned out who I definitely wanted to hunt down. I also tried to note what I wanted to talk to them about. It didn't work out exactly right, but it gave me a plan so I didn't freeze up every time I was confronted with a person whose work I admired. My advisors also helped me organize a few meetings, which took a bit more of the pressure off.
Part of my prep work also involved pre-planning my energy management. I'm an introvert, and at past conferences I've tried to push myself to be at every talk and go out with people all the time. This results in me burning out by mid-week, and generally being scientifically and inter-personally useless for the last day or two of the conference.
This time around, I sat down with the conference schedule and mapped out which talks I would definitely skip, and which I thought I could skip if necessary. I focused on culling talks on the days when I knew I was meeting people, or early morning talks when I had plans to go out the night before. There was no point in me going to a talk if I'm going to be too tired and/or distracted to pay attention, if I could get a bit of rest instead. I also told friends and advisors honestly, before and during the conference, that I would be taking care of myself like this; they generally respected my decisions. I was still exhausted by week's end, but overall I had a much easier time focusing on the talks I did attend and still having some conversational skills left by the end of the week.
I also tried to mitigate some of the environmental impact. What I ended up doing was baby steps, if anything, but still something. I took a few cloth napkins and a good quality plastic fork I already owned, and used those in lieu of paper napkins or plastic utensils at the hotel or end-of-conference picnic. I did not take my own plate, which I kinda regret, but that would also have been hard to carry, especially when dirty. So room for improvement there.
I was also helped a lot in my environmental endeavours by the conference itself, though they weren't perfect. The organizers provided lunch for us every day at the conference center, with nothing disposable involved. They also had real cups and saucers for coffee breaks, although I started carrying my conference mug because they sometimes resorted to paper cups when the real ones ran out. They did have a few plastic giveaways that I didn't resist (water bottle and sunscreen), but overall I was pleased with how they ran it.