Friday, December 31, 2004

Resolving to Fail

Good to have you back, Ron. We’ve missed you and I’m glad you can continue contributing to the growing quality of LL&L.

Speaking of growing quality, it’s that time of the year again! That’s right, time to reach deep in yourself, find something you want to improve and hammer out a resolution only to abandon it by February. Now there are a scant few people I know (like my friend Jon) who keep their resolutions but most say them in name only. I got to thinking today why that is.

Most people in the resolution game experience the bitter taste of path dependence. Resolutions, by their very nature, require changing fundamental things about your daily life: saving more, eating better, quitting smoking and exercising all fundamentally impact our daily “path,” or routine. There are costs in the forms of money (paying for the better food or the gym membership), time (engaging in the new activity), memory (remembering to do the new thing) and custom (being comfortable doing it, or not doing it). Obviously these costs are high—lots of people don’t fulfill their resolution.

Not only are these costs high, it’s so easy to revert to the earlier path. Other forms of path dependence tend to have one time costs—to switch to the new keyboard, for example—and for all intents and purposes, they are instantly paid. Once you pay them, you are “locked-in” on a different course. These costs are usually easier to see. Resolutions are more difficult to establish because the costs are spread out and there’s genuine uncertainty of what those costs are.

Let’s take exercising, my New Year’s resolution. On January 1, I’ll start walking regularly, doing sit-ups and lifting weights. I’ll do it on the second and the third and fourth and so on but somewhere down the line, for whatever reason, I’ll stop and the resolution ends. Note that if my resolution was, say, switch to a different keyboard layout, it would be different. On January 1, I’d buy the new keyboard, throw away the old one and I’d be locked in a new path. Sure, it’ll take time to for my fingers to adjust, but with my old one in the landfill, it’s costly to move back. Even if I don’t throw it away, pulling out the cord from the keyboard and replacing it with a new one is a cost. In other words, I’m on a new path. But with exercising, it’s costly to stay on the path and costs nothing to revert (except for the reason why you wanted to change paths in the first place, but if those things were constantly on your mind you wouldn’t need New Year’s resolutions in the first place).

You can point out that there are costs of adapting to a new keyboard, and you’re right. But these costs are overshadowed by the price of the keyboard (and finding one to buy) while switching to excising over sitting can cost next to nothing if you don’t go to a gym. Indeed, a lot of these costs are predictable: prices are found, time is estimated and memory can be stimulated with post-its and to-do lists. But for New Year’s resolutions, custom is unpredictable. People have a hard time being comfortable with their resolution because, by it’s very nature, is a grand departure from what they are used to. It’s hard to integrate it into your world while with other cases of path dependence, there’s a physical object or a macro, real world force that roots you to the new path. And because there are so many times to abandon an establishing path before you’ve completed paying the custom cost, resolutions are rarely fulfilled.

That’s why they say you should only make one or two minor resolutions and not be like Jon, who’s so capricious he has to keep a list to keep them all straight. :P


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