Sunday, January 1, 2012

Resolutions, Seasonality and Transient Effects

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).

8 comments:

  1. I just heard in the news that less than 50% of the Danes being a member of a fitness center actually use it...so they just pay :-)

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  2. The number here is perhaps a bit lower but still high. Some of it is memberships given as gifts by well-intentioned but overly optimistic relatives. Some of it is the early drop-off of resolvers. I think of it as generous people subsidizing the cost of my membership. :-)

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  3. that is in fact the business model behind gyms: if all members actually went to the gym, there wouldn't be enough equipment available!

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  4. Too true! On busy days, it can be hard to get on the popular machines as it is. I think that's why weight lifters like to grunt so loudly and drop the weights -- it scares off the less committed, and so reduces the demand for the equipment.

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  5. @Paul regarding the hard "weight lifters", I once was member of a gym, that didn't want those kind of types, because it was meant as a place for all types adn for people recovering from injuries etc. They did something really clever : removed all the mirrors ... done deal those guys never came again :-)

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  6. @Bo: Too funny! I can see that working perfectly.

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  7. Isn't it the case that people are turned away by the crowd?

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  8. I think that at some places (such as gas stations) that's probably true, and at other places (stores during holiday sales?) crowds may actually attract more people (must be real bargains there!). At the Y, most of the non-"resolvers" as what I would call lifers; we're committed to working out regularly (because, as one locker room wit puts it, we fear what will happen to us if we don't work out more than we fear the workouts). Going someplace else to work out would be both expensive and, probably, pointless (they'll have "resolvers" too). So we just suck it up and put up with the parking hassles.

    It's not all bad, either. Some of the "resolvers" are pretty cute (while they last), and cute women in Spandex is the whole reason I took up aerobics.

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