Today is New Year's Day (at least on the Gregorian calendar), and it is traditional for some people to usher in the new year by making personal resolutions. The theme for this month's INFORMS blog challenge is "O.R. and Resolutions", and to an O.R. person "resolutions" frequently implies "transient responses". We make a resolution, attempt to adhere to it for a while (introducing a transient change in our behavior), then eventually revert to what we were doing pre-resolution (return to steady state).
I work out at a local YMCA. The Y does its programs in seven week sessions for the most part, with one- or two-week gaps sprinkled around near holidays. I'm not privy to enrollment data, but through decades of empirical study I and other members have identified a distinct seasonal pattern. Building use spikes at the start of the first session of the year (which will be tomorrow). Regulars who come in the evening will discover that parking spots are suddenly quite scarce. The spike is visible but considerably smaller in the mornings. Morning attendance skews toward retirees and the odd academic (pardon the redundancy). I suspect that retirees are less inclined to make resolutions, or alternatively more inclined to stick with them. Academics probably simply forget to make resolutions (just as we forget about matching socks, etc. -- we're too occupied with "profound" thoughts).
After the initial spike in attendance, there is a bit of gradual erosion, as "resolvers" discover that exercise is in fact a euphemism for physical exertion. There's an abrupt drop (think step function) right around the end of the first seven-week session, and then a bit more erosion as attendance returns to a new steady state, barely distinguishable from the pre-New Year's steady state. Other seasonal patterns occur later in the year: a drop in building use during the summer, when outdoor activities and vacation trips lure people away; and a modest increase (noted only in the evening) between mid-April and perhaps mid-May (which I think of as "preparation for bikini season", and which does not seem to involve any retirees).
Besides offering an example of seasonality, the New Year's resolution phenomenon offers a metaphor for O. R. practice. The "resolver" diets, exercises, stops smoking or whatever for a while because the "boss" (their conscience) is paying attention. When the "boss" stops watching, the "resolver" makes excuses for why the new regime is too difficult, and reverts to previous behavior. An O. R. solution to a business problem that is implemented top-down, without genuine commitment by the people who actually have to apply the solution (and change behaviors in doing so), is likely to end up a transient response leading to a return to the previous steady state.
Addendum: Thanks to Mary Leszczynski for pointing out an article in Atlantic Monthly titled "This Is Why You Don't Go to the Gym". The article suggests that penalizing yourself for skipped workouts is a way to motivate follow-through on that New Year's resolution to get in shape. I've occasionally given some thought to why I'm as regular with my workouts as I am. One factor, which fits with the article, is that a little voice in the back of my head reminds me that I've already paid for the workout. (I'm a bit of a cheapskate, so that little voice gets heard.) Another factor is that I mainly do group workouts (aerobics, Tae Kwon Do), with occasional solo forays to the weight room or stationary bicycle. Group workouts can be more fun, but they also mean that slacking will be noticed by someone other than yourself. At my age, though, the principal motivator is fear of the alternative (what my body will turn into if I don't work out).