Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Closest Parking Space at the Gym

Today is New Year’s Day. It is a day when we head off to the gym in large numbers, determined that this year we will exercise better and be in better health. For people like me who on occasion might get only an hour or two of exercise in an entire week, exercise really is the key to better health. And the gym, designed from end to end to focus our attention on effective exercise, is the key to getting more exercise.

And so we are going to the gym today. And when we get there? Most of us will go to some trouble to find the closest parking space so we don’t have to walk so far from the car to the front door. It’s embarrassing when you think about the discord between wanting to exercise and not wanting to walk more than fifty steps.

Well, look, it’s a habit. Before car ownership became commonplace three generations ago, most people too much exercise. It was a real advantage to conserve physical effort. Go back three generations before that, and most people worked on farms, and the possibility of working yourself to death was not just a cliché. In extreme cases, conserving energy could be a matter of life and death. And it became a deeply ingrained cultural habit.

It is a habit that outlived its usefulness not long after we stopped walking everywhere and started driving cars, but it is a habit we have had a hard time shaking.

So where is the rational decision-making that economists like to assume underlies all human people behavior? Well, it is there, but only in the long run, after we alter our patterns of behavior to match what we are consciously seeking. But apparently the long run can be a very long time indeed. This particular habit, of walking the shortest possible distance even at added expense and inconvenience, has persisted for a good half century after it lost its practical value, and I feel comfortable in predicting that it will go on for at least another half century.

Economic patterns are influenced by culture and tradition more so than by ideas of capitalism, socialism, or any other economic ideal. More than we would care to admit, we are just repeating what our great-grandparents did. In truth, tradition has more of a hand in what we do that rationality does.

These patterns change over extended periods of time, but change starts with the individual, and personal change can happen quickly. Today, you can save ten seconds and get more exercise by being willing to walk an extra 30 steps. In five days, you can form this kind of change into a new habit. Then, after three fourths of the people have made a change like this individually, most of the rest will follow the crowd. You see why this kind of change takes so long on a mass scale, but if you are ready to do something new personally, individually, then today is a good day for it.