Forking Roads


What can the craft of writing teach us about how to live? Lot’s actually. This week’s Intentional Tuesday is part of the WriteLife series, which explores the overlap between good writing and good living. You won’t want to miss it.

In his Masterclass, author Neil Gaiman explains a surefire technique for writing compelling drama. He encourages writers to constantly bring characters to a “fork in the road.” A point where they need to make a crucial decision. If the character feels the significance of the decision, the read will feel it too. Do this over and over again, and you’ll have a solid story worth reading. Pretty cool.

As an aspiring writer, I appreciate this technique. But what does it have to do with real life?

How many decisions do you make every day? Dozens? Hundreds? Some research indicates it’s in the multiple thousands of decisions every day. No wonder I’m so tired.

How many of those decisions are conscious? Intentional? Suddenly the numbers are pretty small. Five? Ten? We make most of our decisions on autopilot.

How do we decide which decisions are best handled by autopilot and which ones require a manual intervention? For most of us, when something is really big and consequential, our brains recognize that autopilot won’t work. We grab the controls and make the decision. Most of us do pretty well making these types of decisions.

But how many important decisions don’t register as being important enough for manual intervention?

How skillful are you at deciding how to react when your boss makes what feels like an unreasonable request? How skillful are you when your significant other does that thing they always do that gets on your nerves? How skillful are you when someone cuts you off in traffic?

We make countless decisions just like these, every single day. They are not big enough to initially recognize as important, but they sure feel important when you look closely. How much attention are you giving these decisions relative to their potential consequence? If you’re like me, the answer is alarming. We’re making dozens of consequential decisions every day without the least bit of conscious thought or consideration. Not good.

What can we do about this problem?

In order to make better decisions, we first need to recognize that we’re at a decision point. We need to realize that we’re at a crossroads. When we get ourselves into trouble, it’s often because we fail to even recognize the crossroad. We choose whichever direction feels natural in the moment. We decide by default.

We need to decide by design.

Of course, we can’t make every single decision with full designed intention. We’d never get anything done. It would be exhausting. Paralyzing.

We need to be selective about which decision-points we want to bring into our awareness. This requires planning. 

What are the situations where you get yourself into trouble most often? What are the areas of your life where you find yourself getting frustrated? Where do you feel the least effective?

These are the areas where you want to spend some time considering. As you think through these scenarios, ask yourself…

  1. How will I recognize that I’m at the crossroad? What trigger can I use to notice this?
  2. What is my default way of deciding when I come to this particular crossroad? What’s my pattern?
  3. What is an alternative decision that might be worth considering in those moments?

Once you’ve done your planning, it’s time to experiment. Simply go about your day on the lookout for the crossroad that you’ve identified. When you get to it, hopefully you’ll notice it and you’ll consider all of your options rather than relying on autopilot. Over time, you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. You’ll get better at navigating that particular life-juncture. You’ll become a better person.

Have fun!




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