New 30 day challenge: No sending email after 9 p.m.

Last month (June 2012), my 30 day challenge was to try to eat mindfully (eat more slowly, don’t eat while distracted by TV or web browsing, chew more, stop eating when I’m full, etc.). It turns out that eating mindfully is hard. I’m the sort of person that eats whatever is on my plate, so a couple tricks that worked for me were to 1) get smaller plates and utensils, and 2) don’t put a serving of food on your plate unless you know you want it.

My 30 day challenge this month (July 2012) is “Don’t send any emails after 9 p.m.” Email is the part of my life that is most out of control, so it’s worth trying a few approaches to tackle it. I thought about doing something like “Only send 25 emails a day” but time tracking is much easier. You can help by not sending me any emails this month. 🙂

By the way, if you’re wondering about this whole “30 day challenge” thing, you can watch my TED talk about it:

New 30 day challenge: No news

I haven’t given an update on my 30 day challenges in, like, forever. So here goes:

– In 2011, I paused my 30 day challenges to do a “six month challenge”: training to run a marathon. I ended up running the San Francisco marathon (while tweeting!) and a couple half-marathons. Pro tip: ramp up slowly to a marathon. I trained but then said “Hey, I can run 13 miles, so let’s just go for it!” and that was pretty foolish. But I’ve continued to run with some friends I met through USA Fit, and I did an 18 mile run this past Sunday!

– In October 2011, I went vegan with some friends at work. I thought this would be a crazy-hard challenge. But it turns out that Northern California (and especially at Google) is a pretty easy place to go vegan. I gained a lot of respect for people that choose to go vegan for different reasons.

– In November 2011, I needed an easy challenge, so I grew a moustache for Movember. That was a ton of fun, especially the part where a bunch of search folks, including Duane Forrester from Bing, raised almost $20,000 for charity.

– In December 2011, I decided to do an act of kindness or a good deed a day for 30 days. You can read all the different things I did my “act of kindness” Google+ post. It was a really rewarding month, although coming up with something to do every day was kind of stressful (I ended up falling back on giving money or tips more often than I wanted). I definitely noticed my mindset shift–I started looking for nice things to do. It was good to give myself permission to say “yes” to people more often, too. I liked my behavior more this month.

– In January 2012, I tried to draw something every day. My *goal* was that I would pay more attention to creativity and my right brain in 2012: drawing, learning guitar, singing lessons, etc. In *practice*, this was a disastrous failure. I lasted for about 6-7 days, then slipped while on vacation, and never got back into the habit. I want to be the sort of person who draws, but even with a 30 day challenge pushing me, I didn’t actually do it. I need to do some deep thinking about why I didn’t participate in this activity, which I thought I was enthusiastic about.

– In February 2012, I decided to exercise every day. I normally exercise most days, but this challenge upped my focus a lot and I did several “exercise and then bike into work” days. I’d been on the road for 4 out of six weeks between holidays, a vacation, and a trip to India and Korea. It made me really happy to get back into the habit of exercising, and I definitely felt better and saw results.

– In March 2012, I decided to avoid reading, watching, or hearing the news. This was motivated by a TED University talk from TED 2011. The speaker said that he had cut all news out of his daily life. He figured that if something important happened, a friend or taxi driver would mention it to him. The philosophy is simple: lots of news is sensationalized or depressing, you can’t do much about it anyway, and it takes up a fair amount of your mental cycles.

I’ve already learned a lot from my “no news” challenge. I learned that I’m a literal news junkie. Most of the sites I surf for fun (Techmeme, Google News, Hacker News) are all news sites. My default radio station is the BBC World Service. At dinner my wife and I often watch The Daily Show. When I wait in line I frequently browsed news on my Galaxy Nexus. Heck, my favorite podcast for exercising is This Week in Google, which is a weekly breakdown of news about Google and the cloud. I’m not kidding when I say a huge fraction of my “entertainment” time was actually news consumption. And if news is your hobby, that’s fine, but it should be a deliberate choice, not something you back into.

I eventually had to construct a personal spectrum of what counted as news. Twitter stream? Lots of news there. Twitter mentions? Mostly news-free. Google+ stream? Some news at first, but I put newsy people in a circle and set their volume to zero for this month. Reddit? Mostly news free. WIRED magazine? I decided it was okay to read.

The first few days of going news-free were awful. I was unmoored without a constant stream of events to pay attention to. But within a few days, I started to relax and focus more. Without news to occupy me, large swaths of time of time have opened up to do other things. I’ve gotten a lot more stuff done in the last couple weeks. It’s curiously freeing to have no idea who won Super Tuesday or what company just bought what other company. When an occasional piece of news lands in front of me, I’m much more aware of my heart speeding up as I get wrapped up in that story.

It’s also interesting to see which “news” stories are reflected back to me second-hand. Evidently Snooki is pregnant and Rush Limbaugh did something that has people up in arms. It’s made me think a lot more about my information diet. We need better tools to distill the river of news–or more often, bread-and-circus factoids–down to the trickle of things that really matter.

I have no idea what I’ll do after my news-free challenge ends, but it’s definitely made me realize how much time and effort I was putting into hunting and gathering information, and how I used news as an unconscious way to spend time.

Grow a moustache and fight cancer!

For my next 30 day challenge, I’ll be growing a mustache to raise awareness and money for men’s health issues, and specifically prostate cancer research. Men of search and SEO, please join our team. You can raise awareness, or raise cash. And it’s super simple: just don’t shave your moustache for 30 days. The name of the event is Movember and it should be a blast. Here’s my profile page, for example.

To keep myself honest, here I am, clean-shaven, with a today’s issue of USA TODAY on November 1st:

Matt Cutts, clean shaven on Nov. 1st

By the way: Kim Kardashian is getting divorced‽! I really thought they had a love for the ages.

This is going to be an extra-fun 30 day challenge because I’m joining up with Duane Forrester of Bing and we’re both raising money for the cause. I have to warn Duane though: he might not realize how fast my moustache grows. For example, here I am just an hour after I shaved clean:

Matt Cutts, just an hour later!

That’s right Duane, I can grow a moustache in an hour, so look out! 🙂 By the way, thanks to Mike Halvorsen for asking a timely question about Movember during our recent live Q&A on YouTube.

This should be quite a fun month:
– If you’re a woman (or a man who can’t or won’t grow a moustache), you can still help out the cause by donating to our team.
– Men, I hope you will grow a moustache this month. A great cause like Movember only comes around once a year–why not join us? All you have to do is not shave. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
– The Twitter tag is #seostache if you want to root us on. I hope to see some serious stache from fellow people of search!

New 30 day challenge: going vegan!

Okay, I’m starting up a new 30 day challenge: I’m going to eat vegan for the next 30 days. That means no meat, dairy, or eggs. I’m curious to see how it will go.

Goal: getting email under control

Each year I try to settle on a small set of big goals for the year. Last year my big goal was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. This year, I settled on 2-3 goals I wanted to achieve:

1. Go skydiving. I was with a group of ~15 people in January and we realized that no one in the room had gone skydiving or run a marathon. Both sounded fun, so I made them goals for this year. I met some great folks at Foo Camp a couple weeks ago who had been skydiving, and this past weekend we went skydiving together:

Matt skydiving at 8000 feet or so

It was a lot of fun; I’d recommend skydiving to anyone. You’re up high enough that a fear of heights doesn’t come into play… much. (If you live in the Bay Area, I went to Bay Area Skydiving in Byron, California and had a great experience.)

2. Run a marathon. This goal came from the same group in January where no one had run a marathon. I’ve been training for a couple months now and I’m up to nine miles on my long runs. Unless I’m injured, I think I’ll run a marathon this year. (By the way, USA FIT is a great organization in a bunch of U.S. cities where people get together to train for running a marathon.)

3. Get my email under control. This is a recent goal, but it might be the most important. Email is flawed in a lot of ways. Some wise people have referred to it as a “to-do list that anyone can add to.” It’s typically a poor use of time: you’re often talking to someone 1:1 when those cycles would be better spent working on something that will help a broader range of people or to realize a broader goal. Emails can take a long time to craft compared to other ways to communicate. Email is near-universal, but it lacks good ways for better processing or prioritizing (e.g. “show me the five least useful mailing lists” I get). Lots of email is sent to too many people or is just trying to find the right person to ask a question. Email also encourages us to pay attention to things that are urgent at the expense of things that are important.

Like most people in the tech industry, email has grown into monster for me in a lot of ways. I recently had a day without meetings, and I ended up spending the entire day replying to email, and still only took care of the email that I’d received that day. That’s just not sustainable–even a little more email would mean that I could never catch up–and that’s time that I’m not talking with my team, or thinking about new ways to improve search quality, or making videos or blog posts that can benefit a lot of people.

I’ve tried various email challenges before, e.g. not replying to outside emails for 30 days or not replying to emails after 10 p.m. I don’t know what my final solution to email will be, but this is a heads-up notice that I’m going to try a bunch of things until I find a better balance. I suspect that the final answer may be fairly radical, so if you’re hoping for an email reply from me, you should probably lower your expectations to zero. I’m going to try not replying to outside-Google emails for a while and then adjust things more over time.

Email is a big part of the problem, but I’ll probably have to say “no” more often as well. Please be patient with me while I try to recalibrate. I want to make sure that I spend my work time in the best way I can.