Stop Optimizing My Life

Norcross May 24th, 2010General Ramblings

You all know I’m a serious guy. A serious guy who talks about serious things. Important life issues, and pressing matters that affect today’s common man (or woman). So I want to tell you a story about Taco Bell.

This is a very optimized blog post. You'll notice the text reads top to bottom, left to right. Very efficient. I don’t eat a lot of fast food. But when I do, I usually choose two places: Arbys or Taco Bell. Usually depends on which one is on the side of the road I am on. Since I’m already busy (or lazy) enough at that point to get fast food, clearly I can’t be bothered by making a left turn. So the other day I’m running some errands, and decide that a Chalupa would be awesome. Having a few extra minutes than I planned on, I decided to just park and go into the fine establishment. I wait in line, and get up to place my order (a number 6, no tomatoes, the taco soft, and a Mountain Dew if you were wondering). As I’m ordering, I decide that while I do want all that gut-busting food, I don’t want the 32oz beverage that comes with it. Call me crazy, but I don’t need a quart of soda. So I made what I thought was a simple request. I asked to have a smaller soda size. Now, the look on the gal’s face was akin to showing a dog a card trick. Confusion. Then she said: "ahhhh, we can’t do that sir.” It was as if I asked her to explain Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Apparently, the keypad on the cash register didn’t include an option to have a smaller soda. So after a few moments, I simply told her to charge me the normal price, and just give me a smaller cup. The look of relief on her face was as though I was a cop and let her go with a warning instead of a ticket. It got me thinking. The whole process of ordering (selecting a number, choosing a few variables, pressing corresponding buttons, etc) is extremely efficient. But have we become TOO efficient?

I'm a bit heavy, I understand that. But you simply don't understand how busy I am from day to day. This food makes it so I can get more things done. Think of it with other purchases. Macs come in two colors, white and black. A package not on a car physically in the lot at the dealership involves a lengthy wait process and usually a LOT of extra money. Hell, even most newer neighborhoods offer 3 or 4 models with a handful of color schemes. There is an over-efficiency problem to the extent that institutions offer you only a limited set of choices and what results is a subtle determinism of your behavior. I believe that this isn’t what people really want. They want to be more free. They want to exercise their freedom of choice. Do you remember the old marketing slogan of Burger King? "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. Today, special orders might not upset them, they just short-circuit their brain synapses. The "Have it your way" mentality of the past is no longer valid. Today, virtually all of the fast food chains are saying "Have it our way". You are not free to choose. And this is a serious issue.

11 Responses to “Stop Optimizing My Life”

  1. Tyler Hurst

    For the masses, too much choice will ve their demise. Most people have no idea what they want, and more than two choices taxes their minds.

    If you truly want more and better choices, you don’t get the convenience of fast food, which are all built on replicable systems. Either accept the system or avoid it, but changing it is impossible because they were built for that exact reason: to NOT vary, to not change.

    San Dimas high school rules.

    • Norcross

      I’m all for having some pre-set options, since I agree most people are incapable of making a decision (i.e. my wife and mother-in-law). But to get so efficient that a deviation from that breaks the whole system?

  2. dr.xnlb

    While the point you ponder in your post is very much a valid one (and got me thinking), I would chock your experience up to the cashiers inability to do any kind of creative problem solving, hence her (not-so-)chosen occupation. My first job was at Burger King and a request like this wouldn’t trip me up. I would have offered the same solution to you instead of relying on you to offer it to me. The ‘combo’ prices are discounts on the food, but the drink is always rung in at full price. Seems the system was updated to ensure that no shenanigans could take place, ensuring that only the proper size was selected.

    You might be surprised to find that while consumers are interested in more choices, it actually demotivates them to make a purchase if there are too many options. Oh, we’ll look, but we’ll probably just skip the purchasing part because “thinking is hard”. Never the less it is some interesting research, and might put a spin on your thinking behind this post. The raw research can be read here: — and has been cited in a number of books on behavioral economics.

    • Norcross

      I’ve actually read that study before, and I completely agree that most people can’t (and won’t) make a decision when given the opportunity. But what I’ve been seeing is an extreme version of it, that anything outside of the norm is considered a ‘custom order’ and involves a completely separate process.

  3. Emily Jasper

    After reading Switch, the Heath’s talk about how much mental energy goes into decision-making, especially if we have a head decision (healthy food) and a heart one (yummy fries) that can make us struggle. I think that we do need some automation in our lives, but there are some things that are too automatic, as you said. The idea you can’t get a different drink size, for example. The drink is a core component and it shouldn’t be hard to adjust that. Coffee has caught on to this, even to the point where you can actually request your Splendas during ordering instead of putting them in yourself afterwards. Like everything, it’s a balance I guess.

  4. Mehul Kar

    I agree. I think we’re into a preemptive guessing game that is backed with “market research” (some times).

    “Oh..of course you want a 32 oz soda with your happy meal, x% of people did that one time when we analyzed a set of data.”

    I think we’re about to (and already are) seeing a reversal in the trend of biz. It used to be about cutting costs, to increase the bottom line; i.e. efficiency and standardization of procedures. Now it’s about creating value; i.e. optimizing a scenario to create an environment where customers can make intelligent choices, instead of making the choice for them.

  5. josh

    I’m pretty sure this same thing happened to Gregg Graffin. I’m not exactly sure where or when I heard him talking about it but I’m almost positive.

  6. The Dame

    This is a fantastic post. Concise and to the point instead of rambling on like so many bloggers do. It gets you thinking, cracks open your mind with ease. You should write for a newspaper or magazine.

    • Norcross

      I’ve never been one for rambling. Make the point with as little fluff as possible seems like a good way to go. Thanks for checking it out!

  7. mizChartreuse

    I have a problem with fast food (MOSTLY Taco Bell) and chain restaurants in general– but I understand the analogy to the bigger picture of choices.