My friend and I had plans to meet at 12:30 p.m. at the local Mexican restaurant. I had gotten a haircut earlier that day and decided to stick around downtown instead of going home as our lunch spot was close to the barber shop. I walked around the neighborhood and lost track of time, getting to Fresco at exactly 12:34 p.m.
My friend was already there, and we had a good time. I ordered my favorite, the chicken quesadilla, and he got a couple of tacos. Afterward, we said bye and I went home. Nothing special happened, but something felt wrong.
That afternoon I realized it was the fourth time in a row that I had arrived late to a meeting with that friend. I brushed it off. After all, four minutes is virtually nothing. Still, something bothered me.
The same week, I told a group of colleagues I was about to start a new diet and exercise every day for the next three months. I did so for four days and then got a burger and milkshake at Shake Shack. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll just start it again Monday.
On Friday, I was supposed to join my aunt and my cousin for dinner. I was a bit tired and did not want to sit on the subway for 40 minutes to get to their house, so I lied and said an important work event had come up and I couldn’t miss it.
That same evening, it finally hit me. I didn’t care about my integrity anymore. I had gotten to point in which I not only didn’t keep my commitments to other people, but I was also lying to myself. The constant excuses had led me to a habit of feeling like I didn’t need to be true to my word.
A few months ago, I read a positive psychology article that explained the concept of small wins. It basically stated that by completing minor tasks such as making your bed in the morning or cleaning your room, one builds a culture of getting things done and that leads that person to higher levels of productivity. Now I realize that small losses are also a thing.
The moment I told myself it wasn’t a big deal to be late to that lunch at Fresco, I was subconsciously telling my brain that it was okay to say something and not do it. By arriving four minutes late, I had sacrificed my integrity and, even if it was a very small breach, that led my brain to thinking that more important breaches were also okay.
For the next 15 days, I analyzed my behavior in order to figure out if my “epiphany” had any factual basis. It had. Over the course of those two weeks, I planned half a dozen of meetings and never went through with them. I started working on a new novel and quit after 8,000 words. I arrived at work 20 minutes late, but didn’t care because my boss wasn’t in the office that day. In other words, I kept breaching my integrity in worse ways as time progressed.
After that period of self-observation, I decided to make a change. I read Dan Ariely’s “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty” in order to understand better why human beings lie and breach their integrities on a daily basis. I made a list of everything I had said I would do and didn’t, and I created a plan to change that.
Since then, I have consistently eaten healthier, I workout virtually every day and I’m cultivating some of the best friendships and personal relationships of my life. I’m more productive at work and at home, and I’m halfway done with my novel. In other words, by simply realizing that small breaches of integrity lead to major breaches of integrity, I forced myself to significantly improve my quality of life.
I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t realized that. Maybe nothing would have changed, but maybe my lack of integrity would have led to truly significant lies and acts of dishonesty. That’s how most people become criminals or corrupt. They do one small negative thing, and their brains trick them into believing those actions are okay. That escalates and then BOOM: you are too deep into the hole.
This is not a rant, however. It’s a wake-up call. If you keep telling yourself that you will start exercising but never do, or makes fun of your habit of always being late to things, be wary. Arriving five minutes late to a friendly lunch can turn you into a compulsive liar. Or worse, a criminal mastermind.