After one horrified glance in the bathroom mirror, you stash your new togs in a bottom drawer to serve as a goal outfit, and reach for your oldest shorts and biggest T-shirt. Inexplicably, they, too, sensuously outline the thick ring of Christmas cookies and eggnog that settled around your abdomen sometime during the past fortnight. You put on a face that says “Avoirdupois is the new black” and try to strut into the gym like someone who wanted to look this way.
The place is so packed that you have to lurk at the back of the cardiovascular area until a machine frees up, trying not to reflect on how vividly this recalls your experience of middle school dances. Eventually you secure an elliptical trainer vacated by a dewy Miss California who departs with a pitying backward glance. As you mount the machine, you sense the buff people to either side are also looking at you, and not kindly. This feeling only grows as you shuffle through the first steps toward a new body, until you are half-convinced that every regular in the room is talking about you behind your back. As if the universe wanted to vindicate your anxieties, you suddenly start gasping like the audience at a Penn & Teller show.
I’d like to reassure you at this point, but the truth is, they are talking about you — though not you personally, or your poor cardiovascular conditioning. They’re just complaining about the collective you, the dozens of newcomers who have descended upon their gym, competing with them for machine time. And since they know that most of you will have given up by Valentine’s Day, they rather resent this pointless appropriation of scarce resources.
You see, gym owners have a problem. They know that every January they will be inundated but that the flood will quickly dry up. So they buy for average rather than peak load and let their regulars suffer through January.
The result is bad for everyone. Resentful regulars unfortunately sometimes exude a palpable hostility to the newcomers, which saps newcomers’ motivation. As does the sight of other newbies dropping out after a few days or weeks — the more the crowds thin, the easier it is to excuse your own decision to sleep in.
Happily, there is actually an easy solution to this. Gym regulars aren’t naturally antagonistic to newcomers; for the other 11 months of the year, they’re rather evangelical about their routines and might even help you learn to use the squat rack. And you’re probably more likely to stick with it if you’re met with friendly (if slightly pitying) smiles, rather than the ocular equivalent of a “No Trespassing” sign. So all we have to do is figure out how to stagger the new arrivals instead of having all of them rush through the gym doors on the same day.
Nature has provided us with just such a mechanism! It is called “the birthday.” Birthdays make the perfect anchor for our aspirations, while providing a steady, even flow of customers for self-improvement services, rather than an intolerable peak load.
Unfortunately, from the regular gym-goer’s perspective, this is something of a collective-action problem. One person deciding to make a birthday resolution will not appreciably diminish the January line at the StairMaster.
On the other hand, collective customs can be remade if enough individuals decide there’s a better way. And self-improvers who make the switch get immediate benefits: no queuing and a smaller, friendlier audience for their halting initial efforts. Best of all, come the January rush, they get to be one of the regulars, bemoaning the new arrivals but also secretly pleased at how much better their own efforts now look in comparison.
Life’s big problems tend to have no solution that makes everyone better off; that’s why they haven’t been solved. But life’s minor annoyances, including this one, often do have win-win solutions. The problem isn’t convincing people to pay some cost but merely to notice how much easier life would be for everyone if we could just agree to do something different.