Conference season is coming up and my supervisor signed us both up to a series of conferences that are running over the next few weeks. Having already participated in a couple of them, I kind of know what I'm in for and wondered how you guys tackle online conferences.

Is it bad that I sometimes don't/can't pay full attention to certain talks?

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    Do you pay attention for the entire duration of every talk when the conference is offline?
    – cheersmate
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 8:19
  • 5
    @cheersmate I try my best, I just feel obligated to stay focused but it's so much harder to do that when the talks are online :( Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 8:42
  • 4
    Do you have a separate screen from your normal one, for example, a nice big TV? Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 10:01
  • 4
    I use an ultrawide for work so I could use that? Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 10:30
  • 13
    Get off stackexchenge ;-) ? Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 19:22

11 Answers 11


My approach is to treat the presentations like an offline presentation as much as possible: force myself to sit back, hands off my computer, I'll even try to take notes by hand. Anything that keeps me away from the keyboard, cause if I'm there, I check my emails, and ... you know. Sometimes I view stuff on my tablet and sit in an unusual spot (couch, even outside) so I stay away from my desk.

Apart from that I treat attention as a (in my case very) limited quantity. I admire the people (often older PIs) who seem to be able to pay attention to talks for 12 h straight. I cannot. I'll scan the program in advance and make sure to focus on the talks which will be of the highest relevance to me. (Of course having too narrow of a focus can mean missing out on unexpected gems and inspiration. But if I try take everything in, it will be closer to nothing. There's a trade-off to be made here.)

Update: PLoS CB's Ten simple rules for attending your first conference also has some complementary suggestions, see in particular rules 5 and 6.

  • 4
    Yes, I think taking notes on paper is very helpful to be focused and keep thinking along the presentation. Also, structuring your notes with a system such as the "Cornell Note Taking Method" may help. Instead of simply "recording" what is said, it forces you think about the core ideas.
    – Manu
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 12:18
  • 2
    +1 for taking notes, though I usually type up ("live tex") abbreviated notes when I do this (at least for talks I am really interested in)---otherwise I'll almost never find those notes again. If necessary, one can also use software to lock out certain sites/apps for the duration of the conference.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 14:55
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    As a note, older academics are likely able to focus for longer because well, they don't need to? If you are new to a field 2 conf talks will kill your brain. The more time you are in the field, the more you "half disconect", as you already know 60% of the talk because you understand the field or have seen previous work. Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 23:49

@cheersmate already mentions many useful strategies that primarily revolve around being away from the computer or at least having your hands off its keyboard.

Other strategies in this regard that I've seen people use or use myself:

  • If the talk does not actually require looking at the screen -- say, if it's mostly a conceptual talk without pictures or formulas -- then go for a walk and listen to the talk on your phone while you're out there.
  • Do something else with your hands. My wife knits, I sometimes chop vegetables or fruit for the next meal. That's a job I can do while paying attention and at least part of the time watching, and I'm not tempted to do something else.
  • Be on a treadmill or a stationary bike and do light exercise.
  • 3
    +1 for do something with your hands (which I find helps a lot).
    – cheersmate
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 6:30
  • +1 I put a board over a treadmill so that laptop and a sheet of paper can go there. Still experimenting with that but so far looks very promising (and it's interesting to see how speed and concentration on talk correlate ;-) ). I think (but didn't actually try out) that treadmill works better than bike trainer since you'd need to adjust that in a rather funny way to allow taking off your hands at low power. (And high power isn't suitable for writing notes anyways)
    – cbeleites
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 18:52
  • Stephen Wolfram once wrote a blog post about what treadmill speed is most amenable to work. I bet you can still find that somewhere on the internet. Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 19:49
  1. Keep your video turned on
  2. Force yourself to ask at least one question during/after the talk
  3. Plan your schedule so that listening to the talk is one of the main things you want to accomplish that day
  4. Use a website blocker to block sites like gmail, stackexchange, reddit, etc.

my supervisor signed us both up to this series of conferences that are running over the next few weeks.

Whether it's real-life or online conferences - unless you both have extremely high stamina, or you absolutely must attend (e.g. since you're presenting) - attending multiple consecutive conferences back-to-back with a full(ish) schedule is not a good idea, and few people would be able to maintain proper focus after, oh, a week of that I would think.

Having already participated in a couple I kind of know what I'm in for and wondered how you guys tackle online conferences?

Not all that well frankly. Not only is it tiring, but after enough days staring at a monitor I can get a migraine.

Is it bad that I sometimes don't/can't pay full attention to certain talks?

Your having physical and psychological limits is not "bad". Also, even if we had told you: "Piece of cake, no problem" - you can't take others as your measuring-stick. It's not as though you've made some wrong moral choice or something. Every one of us has their limits.

Anyway, I would take the time to go over the schedule carefully - even if the first session of the day has already started - and to actively avoid diving head-in to session after session after session. Instead, make sure you identify some cant-miss ones. Beyond that - don't be too "adventurous" with adding sessions that are close to your must-attends. Allow for some time to take a stroll, a jog, or even a nap (Yeah, I said it. A proper actual nap.) between sessions if you can no longer concentrate, or are getting annoyed, or having a headache etc. Also remember you don't fully recharge after a night's sleep; nor fully recharge after a couple of days of rest between conferences.

Finally, find the time to absorb and reflect on sessions you've attended, during and after the conference. Possibly with colleagues or even with your supervisor if your relationship is pleasant enough.


One thing I learned over the last year is to empty your schedule. If you go to a conference during normal times, you have a week without meetings or most other commitments, to focus on the conference. Do not try to have an online conference on top of your regular work day! (Especially if the presentations are in a different time zone, and happen during your afternoon / evening. Yes, theoretically you could fit both in your day, but you will not find focus on either. Trust someone who tried that already...)

Cancel your meetings for the week, and focus on the presentations. Otherwise your focus, your work life and your mental well being will suffer from the conferences.

Otherwise I can only agree with @cheersmate and @Taw: focus on the most interesting talks, and do your best to ask a questions at the end. It both shows you payed attention, and makes you think about the material, in order to come up with a question.

  1. Put your smart phone away.
  2. Put your earphone on.
  3. Close the door so that you are not disturbed by the noise outside.
  4. Get a notebook and a pen to be ready to write something important down.
  5. List some questions you want to get answered from the presentation and keep listening to find out.
  6. Remove anything that might attract your attention on your desk.

Hope this helps.


If possible, meet with other people (your advisor, other PhD students) and watch online together. Either at one of your houses or in a room in your university. Being distracted when other people are in the same room is less likely (peer pressure).

Obviously,this depends on the pandemic situation at your place, that other people are willing to join in, and that you want to attend the same talks.


When I need to focus on a video stream, what I usually need is:

  1. Paper, lots of;
  2. Pencil.

And then I focus on taking notes. Every minute or so. This will:

  1. Keep your hands busy;
  2. Keep the keyboard away;
  3. Keep your attention on the video.

I'm not transcribing the video. But I focused on annotating good phrases, keywords, individual names, sketches... As if I will need this after, in a way to easily find something that is somewhere in some video.

And it's exactly that which occurs afterwards, by the way...


Practise your PowerPoint

I had to give a presentation for my company at a Euspen session a couple of weeks ago, at very short notice (like less than 2 days). I did a practise run with Zoom and PowerPoint, and quickly found that the two don't like each other. Normally you'd share the application and that'd be it, but when you run a presentation with PowerPoint then it'll try to put your presenter notes on Zoom instead. It's easily fixable (either share that screen instead, or use the slide view), but you need to be ready for it.

The presenter before me was not ready for it, and imploded rather badly. Since he was from our biggest competitor, I felt sorry for him, but not that sorry. :)

More generally, marshall your attention for talks which warrant it

You've got the list of talks. See what you think is relevant and what isn't. You can stay focused for 10 minutes more easily than for an hour.

  • 1
    If the presentation doesn't contain animations, it can be exported to a pdf document, which combines much more smoothly with Zoom.
    – Stef
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 9:48

Don't eat too much. The hunger will keep you awake -- The opposite of, "A large meal will make you sleepy". Also, don't overdo the caffeine. A cup or two of coffee can do you some good, but as you know, too much can really mess with your sleep pattern.

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    -1 Hunger is a huge distraction, and trying to think with low blood sugar is like trying to drive with a stuck handbrake. Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 10:25
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    I don't think that hunger / sleepiness is the number 1 reason for distraction.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Jun 23, 2021 at 12:52

First of all, record it! Doing that, you feel free to review parts you missed by inattentive moments or interruptions, rewind, fast forward or play fast the entire conference. Thats all you need!

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    Do conferences generally allow that, unless they themselves are providing the recording?
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 20:35
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    I smell privacy issues...
    – penelope
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 10:44
  • Even the conference organizers themselves can only do that, after asking permission from everyone present.
    – Lot
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 11:37
  • 1
    A lot of virtual conferences record their talks by default - you are usually warned about this when you sign up. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 14:15

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