Trying new things for 30 days: Matt Cutts' TED2011 presentation


Photo of Matt Cutts at TED2011. Credit: TED

I enjoyed Google engineer Matt Cutts' presentation at TED2011 about his series of "30 Day Challenges." In May of 2009, Matt decided to walk at least 10,000 steps a day for 30 days. He was happy with the results, so he followed that exercise by giving up television for 30 days.

He now tries something new every 30 days. The challenges so far have included biking to work, not using Microsoft software, not using Twitter, not using an iPhone, not responding to any external e-mail (that is, e-mail outside of Google), not having caffeine, not having sugar, meditating 15 minutes a day, reading the Bible, reading 15 books (he only made it 12), using only cloud-based software, taking one photo a day, writing a novel, getting his finances in order, and learning a new word every day.

In his talk Matt said that some of the main benefits of doing these 30 day challenges is that time slows down and life becomes more interesting. I want to give this a try!

Matt has a blog where you can follow his 30 day challenges.


  1. Pretty good! If he gets to my age without changing the world, I will be most disappointed.

    Most of the really useful people over sixty — you might meet us at political rallies (in Wisconsin for instance), or fund raisers for health services. or a soup kitchen for the homeless — figured out really early that you need to change the world.

    In a not too surprising generational switch, Matt is all about him, not the rest of the world.

    Personally, I don’t give a shit about him: I’d like to see what he is giving back to a world that (obviously) takes care of him! And I’d like to see him do something for more than thirty days.

    Thirty days is easy: let’s see him maintain ethical principles for a lifetime.

    1. Boo, here’s how Matt is giving back to the world:

      “A few years ago my wife and I formed a non-profit foundation. Neither of us are paid a salary from the foundation. Example groups that the foundation has donated to include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, MAPLight, Change Congress, the Sunlight Foundation, Free Press, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, charity: water, and Room to Read. The Employer Identification Number (EIN) of our foundation is 203865461.”

      Of course, that probably not good enough for someone as wonderful as you.

      1. Hey Mark,

        I’m not wonderful at all (if you don’t count a free school in the slums of Halifax and a partnered one in Tanzania), but that’s not the point. (And no, I work ‘old school’ so you might not find either of them on the web.)

        I was hoping that people younger than I am could keep a focus on some things for more than thirty days.

        Good for Matt for improving himself and the world. I had no intention of belittling his accomplishments: on the other hand, this particular post is all about him doing things for 30 days.

        I was just hoping that people could concentrate on something, maybe anything(!), for more than 30 days.

        1. free school in Halifax! like most other schools there you mean? there are only a couple private schools, and they’re quite small.

          1. No, like a school for street kids. It is still operating under different auspices and with slightly different goals now, but I was part of getting kids out of gangs and off the streets for more than 2 years in the early seventies.

            Even two years isn’t much, so I am definitely not bragging.

            I have switched my activism to trying to change the system that left those kids out in the first place. Not a lot of luck so far, but even baby steps count if they add up over 40 years. :}

        2. I was just hoping that people could concentrate on something, maybe anything(!), for more than 30 days.

          Isn’t he concentrating on his quest to try new things for longer than 30 days? Considering he started in June 2009 and the latest addition to the category on his blog is from December 2010 I make that 18+ months.

          The challenges themselves are arguably somewhat silly, but whatever floats his boat… The one that strikes me as most strange is using only cloud-based software. Why would you want to change your work-flow to something less efficient just for laughs? All of the others have obvious benefits (‘cept reading the bible), but forcing yourself to use the wrong tool for certain jobs just seems inefficient. Also – is taking a picture a day really a challenge if during that month you are traveling to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?

          In any case the dude is adding original content to the web, unlike the meaningless astroturf which is prevalent across many personal blogs, so more power to him.

        3. At the risk of belaboring the point… @boo, I think you have misunderstood what Matt’s talk was about.

          Matt has a day job as an engineer at Google. He’s head of their web spam team so he spends his days trying to make Google search ever better. Quite an important job imho. And btw, he’s been doing that for years.

          His 30 day challenges are just something he does personally to expose himself to fresh perspectives and to broaden his thinking. The 30 day challenges are not ‘what he does’ or even ‘what is is known for’, they are just something he does and was invited to talk about.

          Personally, I think it is brilliant and we could all do with challenging ourselves to try new things outside our comfort zone from time to time (let alone every 30 days).

  2. Well Boo, aside from mark pointing out you might have googled the guy…

    Any activities towards self actualization
    Self Improvement
    Expanding skillsets or coping skills
    Personal financial profit or stability

    make a person more capable to give back.

    So though your point is easy to see…

  3. What is interesting is how this affects time perception.

    This is why childhood summers feels longer then adult summers, as they contained more new experiences.

  4. People measure time not by days, but by experiences. Usually when people try to remember when something happened they think in terms of “I wasn’t married yet” “I lived in my old house” “I worked at … job” and so on. So I see why his time perception has changed.

  5. Hey, I’ve managed the first four without even trying; but I can’t conceive of doing without caffeine. Or getting my finances in order, for that matter.

  6. keith johnstone calls it “breaking the routine.”
    it stimulates drama in story-telling, so i wonder how it makes this cat feel… does he get a rush from it?

  7. I think this is a pretty neat idea.

    Thirty days is a long enough time period to experiment with something to see if it’s something you find useful or interesting. Also, as mentioned, enough time to have something become a habit.

    In terms of doing something you “should” do (like getting regular exercise) it reminds me of the “15 Minute Trick”. Get started on some unpleasant or uninspiring task telling oneself that if you can’t stand doing it after the 15 minutes you will stop. Usually, you just keep plugging along by the time that quarter hour is over as the inertia of starting has been overcome.

    I can think of a few good 30 day exercises for myself: walking daily once again (used to, but stopped), writing one hour a day, cooking a new dish for every supper…I think it would be easy to come up with one thing every month.

    As an aside, I think many people at some point in life realize making a difference in the world is important. I did. Put some of my money and my time where my mouth is by supporting some charities financially, writing/calling my congressional critters, volunteering for a foster child advocacy group. None of that gives me the right to a holier than thou attitude though. Nothing special about it and plenty of other people, better people than I, do the same and more.

  8. About five years ago I tried vegetarianism for a month as New Year’s resolution. It was interesting, because I had to focus on a new diet, finding new places to eat out, and being aware of how I felt day to day.

    I might have to try this practice out more.

  9. Fasting for 30 days, such as skipping breakfast and lunch and eating a late dinner, is a very interesting experience. You will learn fascinating things about yourself. It’s the ultimate auto-didactic lesson that extends past your own will. Many religions have some form of fasting but you don’t need one to experience the benefits. It improves you and then improves the world around you.

  10. i have been engaging in a similar excerise lately.i couldn’t come up with any reasonable new years resolutions for 2011. i knew that i would commit myself to too much and inevitably fail & forget all of them. so instead i decided to make 2011 the year of acheviable monthly resolutions.

    in january i gave up coffee. not caffiene. i’m no fool. i still drink ass-loads of tea.

    in february i gave up carbonated beverages. no soft drinks or beer. this was tricky because i own and operate a restaurant and they are both right there at my disposal whenever i want.

    throughout march i have been walking everyday.

    i don’t know what april will bring. i have been deciding the day before the first day of the month.

    these aren’t 30 day experiments. i am still off coffee. i am still off fizz. i will continue to walk. these resolutions will have a cumulative effect towards a better life which would ultimately allow me to help make a better world.


    1. Try being a teacher. You do something new every hour.

      Like, for instance, suddenly discovering that you’re an evil fat cat with a huge paycheck, glorious benefits, apparently work only 25% as much as anyone else, and generally suckle off the honest taxpayer’s teat?

      Learning something new isn’t always a good thing.

      1. Yes indeed, ’tis true, for instance: i just learned SamSam is a horrible troll.

        Those mythical “honest tax-payers” include foreign corporations making sales into the USA? Or gun manufacturers? Or tobacco and alcohol merchants?

        Or simple speculators in food stocks?

        1. Um, wow, UC. I thought my post was over-the-top enough to be instantly recognizable as satire. But I guess you don’t recognize jokes in Canada because… wait, anything I say is liable to be misinterpreted again as being serious.

          I was making a joke about how teachers are being currently portraid by spineless politicians in Wisconsin. Heard anything about that in the news lately?

          My wife is a teacher, regularly works 14 hour days, and isn’t paid nearly enough.

  11. Great idea. Twould do me some good and I should try it. But what is his ratio of “not doing” something to “doing” something? When I moved back to the US, I was shocked by how proud Americans were about eliminating things from their lives. Without really being able to add many good new things, such as e.g. good fresh bread or fresh flowers from around the corner at breakfast-time, flattering cheap clothes, affordable little vacations, &c.

    Wouldn’t it be great to be able to “add” a mindbendingly awesome new (adless) tv show rather than eliminate all tv?

  12. Grrr! Boingboing is frequently guilty of this but three times in one day- yeesh! I am talking about failure to explain acronyms! I had to Google GTD (get things done), DRM (digital rights management) and TED (technology entertainment and design).

    It is not good communication to assume your readers are familiar with your TLAs (three letter acronyms)

    1. Disagree. That is what Google is for.

      GTD is random, but DRM and TED? You’d have to be living in a digital cave not to have heard of those.

      1. Live in a digital cave? Hardly. IT is not what I do for a living but I try to keep up by reading- for pleasure- sites like boingboing, for example.

        But it’s sloppy journalism to use unacknowledged acronyms. It’s also kind of contrary to the mission of a site like boingboing,is it not? Using jargon and acronyms makes it kind of clubby and exclusive instead of fun and welcoming.

        1. You’ve made a total of four comments at BB; three identical ones about acronyms in three different threads, and this one. Just Google it and stop hijacking threads to complain about it.

  13. The thing-a-month setup is a good one – For christmas, my boyfriend gave me a curriculum – that is, a set of filing drawers with a drawer for every month, and in each drawer there is a task that involves learning a new technique or creating something with a specific purpose. January was creating a Dorodango, February was designing a seal and having it engraved, this month is brewing booze :) I have to submit my assignments and I get marked on each, and some assignemnts will feed into others later in the year. It’s probably the best christmas present I’ve ever had!

  14. It’s great to see a TED talk on this great idea. (Way to go Tim Hartford for tweeting about it!)

    I’ve long been using 30 day periods (and 7 day periods) as a means of trying out new things I’m thinking of doing long term. The process is a very powerful means of self-guided behavior mod. It seems to rewire the brain, in the sense that it makes us either want to do the new thing we’re trying (e.g. a new way to exercise), or not want to do the thing we’re not doing (e.g. not eating sugar). I wrote about the process here here: (section 2).

    I’ve found that the harder the thing is that I’m trying, the more important it is to let myself feel something called mastery – that feeling of “wow, I can do it.” It’s a very powerful, internal self reward that makes us want to keep going with whatever it is we’re working on. I wrote about it here:

    I hope people will give this process a try and comment and tweet all about it. It works well for just about anything – a friend of mine did a 7 day challenge of not yelling at her kids, and it worked wonders. It broke the cycle for her and made her much more mindful of her words and reactions to things. Very cool.

    Susan Alexander!/SusanRPM4

  15. I gave up drinking and sweets for 30 days (All of January). I ended up losing 10 pounds. Based on how much better I felt (more energy, greatly reduced apetite, etc), I’ve decided to keep going with it.

    30 days is a good amount of time. It sounds “doable”, but when it’s over, it still ends up being a damn fine acheivement!

  16. For implementing GTD you can use this web-based application: Gtdagenda

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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