The 30-Day Challenge: How Google's Spam King Tackles Constant Improvement

Since 2009, Google's Matt Cutts has undertaken a stunning variety of 30-day personal challenges, all in the quest for self-improvement. Here's what he's learned.

Matt Cutts has spent 14 years incessantly Googling. Even if he's nowhere near a computer--in the shower, in bed, at family gatherings--the Google spam king is thinking up queries to test the veracity of the company's search algorithms. At flea markets, he totes around a little red notebook in his back pocket, jotting down URLs of the vendors' websites while his wife peruses jewelry. Later, he Googles them to find problems that might not crop up in the course of his typical personal searches.

Matt Cutts

As head of Google's Webspam Team, Cutts is charged with ensuring that hackers and schemers don't scam Google's page rankings. Also, as a part of the search team, Cutts is partly responsible for the search engine's overall reliability. Hence the obsessive Googling. "If you go to enough art and wine festivals, you end up with a pretty big list" of random search terms that may reveal potential algorithm improvements, he told Fast Company. "It has been very useful when there was a bug, or something that we could do a little bit better on our end, and that sort of mom-and-pop set of queries was one of the first ways we identified the problem and made the results better."

Talking to Cutts, he doesn't sound weary of his job, which involves more Google searching than most of us can fathom. By his estimation, he's typing in words or phrases for Google to search upwards of 40 times a day. The most exciting part of his job, he said, "is trying to come up with new algorithms to separate the high-quality sites from the lower-quality sites. It's really fascinating."

And yet, a few years ago, he began to tire of what he calls the "desk-dwelling computer nerd" life. So, he decided to take a cue from documentarian Morgan Sperlock and spend 30 days focused on a single goal. Back in June 2009, he started by aiming to walk 10,000 steps a day for 30 days. At first, he had trouble completing the task. "I didn’t walk 10K steps every day, but I did keep at it until I’d walked over 10K steps for at least 30 days," he wrote on his personal blog.

But, keeping at it, he found the process valuable (and eventually turned it into the topic for a popular TED talk). "I discovered that walking to the grocery store can be a relaxing way to unwind and get some exercise." Since then, he has done a 30-day challenge every month. Other projects include 30 days without work--thanks, Google!--taking a picture every day for a month, writing a novel in 30 days, and filming one second of video per day, which he then turned into this clip:

Not all the stints are self-serving: Once he did a "secret challenge," during which he did one nice thing for his wife every day; he also spent a month doing random acts of kindness.

This month, he's attempting to forgo social media, which he has done around the New Year before. "It’s almost like a cleanse," he told Fast Company. (Cutts isn't alone in this assessment, as Baratunde Thurston chronicled in this Fast Company story.)

Unlike a standard New Year's resolution, which requires a very daunting entire year's worth of commitment, 30 days is just the right amount of time, he argues. It's attainable and realistic. "Small sustainable changes are more likely to stick," he said. And, setting a time limit takes off some of the pressure. For example, cutting sugar out of your diet for 365 days will never, ever happen for most humans. But, a month without sugar, while still very painful, is doable. And, if he really hates a challenge, then the pain is over pretty quickly. "It’s just a nice way to try something on for size," he said.

Instead of feeling guilty for failing at big goals, like so many of us at the end of the year, after each project Cutts comes away enlightened. One takeaway from his month long vacation, for example: "I realized that I’d gotten in the bad habit of giving friends my work email address, as well as forwarding my personal email address to my work email. Takeaway: keep your work email separate from your personal email. Seems like common sense, but after almost 14 years at Google, things had gotten tangled together."

Forcing himself to try something new so often has turned Cutts into a more adventurous person. In his pre-challenge life, he never would have hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, he claims. Nor did he see himself as the type of person who bikes to work and enjoys it. That's a pretty good track record in the personal improvement department--far better than I've ever had with year-long resolutions. Cutts might be on to something.

[Images courtesy of Matt Cutts]

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