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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.

Matt Cutts: Gadgets, Google, and SEO