Serendipity > FOMO: How to Plan for SXSW

(I just unearthed this essay from an old blog of mine. It’s worth reposting here, even though SXSW ended a couple weeks ago. Don’t think of it as too late for SXSW 2019, see it as very early for SXSW 2020.)

Last week, a friend asked me how I approach my SXSW planning. There’s so much to see and do, it’s like all of college crammed into 10 days (or 14 days, if you do SXSWedu too, like I do). Sessions, speakers, networking, networking events, mentoring, hands on maker sessions, multiple trade show floors, music, film, art, video games, national display houses, parties, dancing late at night, pitch events, VC meetups, eco meetups, tech meetups of every type imaginable, educational scavenger hunts, book signings… attendees can’t experience more than 1-2% of all the amazing stuff that badges provide access to. Planning your days can be daunting. Moreover, the website isn’t great and the app is buggy, ironically enough, and you can’t get your hands on the event catalog until registration the day before. However SXSW itself is such a life-changing and world-changing conference that it’s well worth putting up with any sub-par SXSW technologies.

Selecting Sessions and Events

First, once the sessions and speakers are posted (and they are all posted now), I’ll log in, click on Schedule, go through each hour of each day and star the sessions that seem most interesting. Sometimes there’s one session, sometimes six. This process can take an hour or three. Then, the evening before each day’s sessions, I’ll review the starred sessions and mentally pick my favorite one or maybe two for each time slot throughout the day. If the session is full when I arrive, I simply go to another starred session. I use my phone app during the conference, but I also bring the catalog, because my phone runs low on battery by the end of most days, even if I bring a portable charger or two.

When selecting what speakers and sessions to attend, I mix it up so I don’t end up in 175 sessions about VR and miss out on lots of other cool stuff. I go through the days, hour by hour, clicking on the titles that catch my eye, starring the descriptions that sound awesome. Other people do it differently, but with the same basic outcome. For example, you can also select a specific track (i.e. VR, gaming, journalism, SXSW Good, film, music, etc.) and select mostly sessions in that track. Regardless of selection method, I get a lot of benefit from doing lots of different types of stuff, different types of sessions. I create lots of new connections and ideas that way. For example, “Whoa! What if I combined that idea from that one session on eco-journalism with that other idea mentioned in the VR/AR session to this other concept I learned about AI in the Japan House, and what if I used a business model I learned about in yesterday’s pitch session and partnered with the incredible person I met while waiting in line at the art installation?”

I often let serendipity lead me, not FOMO (fear of missing out). If I miss something cool, so what? I’ll probably see something else cool instead, possibly something I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to if I spend the entire conference (and my life) focused on only my top couple interests. For example, if some new friend suggests a session or event or whatever, I’ll give it a shot. If I don’t feel like walking from the Convention Center to the Marriott of visa versa, say, because I’m short on time or if it’s raining, then I’ll find a session near where I’m at. The best events and sessions are often stuff you wouldn’t have thought to see from the website or catalog or app but you end up at totally randomly because someone mentioned it five minutes before it started, or you ended up in the wrong room, or you met the speaker the day before and wanted to support them, or whatever.

I especially let serendipity take over in the evenings. You meet awesome people. You get invited to lots of random events and parties. You get tickets to see a band or movie. You walk past something really interesting. You get invited into the back of a windowless van (OK, maybe pass on that one, unless it’s that cool zero-sound-zero-light art installation trailer that came last year, in which case, definitely do it!). Whatever sounds interesting, weird, or fun, I just roll with it.

Share SXSW with Friends

Share your schedule with friends by checking the tiny checkbox on the My Favorites page. Better yet, if you do know other people with badges, get together a day or two before SXSW to discuss your game plans. Inevitably you’ve each noticed some amazing event or session the others missed but will absolutely want to experience. Make sure to attend at least a few, if not most, sessions together. Sharing the SXSW experience adds to the serendipity levels and also makes everything more fun. Further, you’ll have someone with whom to discuss and reflect later.

Just don’t fall back on only speaking with your friend the whole time. We tend to reach out to strangers more for conversation more when we’re by ourselves. Grab your friend and walk up to a random person or group standing by themselves, introduce yourself, and start a conversation. Tim Ferriss has a great podcast episode about how to get the most out of SXSW, including specific tips on how to engage in good conversations, how to meet A-listers, what mistakes not to make, and so on.

A Few Final Thoughts

I pack a lunch and lots of snacks every day to save time and money. Sometimes I even pack dinner if I’m going to be out late. There are food trucks nearby, but they’re expensive. You won’t miss sessions going out to lunch if lunch is in your backpack. Also, the rumors about free food only apply to the parties in the evening. Not all parties have food, and most are just some version of chips, veggies, and dips, not exactly a complete and balanced meal. If you’re subsisting on nachos all week, you’ll run out of energy by the end of SXSW and miss out on cool sessions, events, people, and opportunities. Equally as important, you’ll get less out of the sessions and speakers you do attend.

Similarly, make sure to get plenty of sleep immediately before and during the conference. It’s easy to start early, fill your brain all day, and then go hard all night at parties, concerts, and the like, but then you’ll run yourself down. You may even get sick and have to miss whole days. It’s just not worth it. Set boundaries for when you get to bed, and stick to them. And for goodness sake, don’t ruin the unparalleled and nearly-endless opportunities by consuming lots of alcohol. Have a drink or two if you feel you need it, but don’t get drunk. It’s a colossal waste of your time and money at SXSW and could even damage your reputation.

I typically drive each day, since I walk so much all day anyway, and it saves time. I park in the neighborhoods in East Austin, just a few blocks straight east of the Convention Center. I’ve always found ample free street parking over there, and it’s relatively safe to walk.


Star your favorite sessions hour by hour, share schedules with friends, don’t get FOMO, just roll with it, pack food, and stay rested.