Intentionitis: What It Is and Why It Matters

05/24/2011 12:52 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011

It's happened to everyone, and most of us are guilty of it as well: insincerity. The friend you'll call "next week" when you know you won't; the potential employer who insists "we'll be in touch" and isn't; the romantic liaison whose number you take knowing you'll never use it. If our insincere moments were considered unpardonable sins, we'd all be on the expressway to hell.

"Intentionitis" is different; it is the replacement of action with sincerely stated intention. The "sincere" part is crucial. With intentionitis, the likelihood of inaction increases in direct proportion to the sincerity with which the intention is expressed. Simply put, the feeling that you meant to do it trumps the reality that you didn't.

The most obvious example of intentionitis is the guy who doesn't call back after the first date. He may have known inside that he was never going to call, but kept telling himself he really would pick up the phone tomorrow. By the time you run into him a year later, he really means it when he insists that he did actually call. It's a sleight-of-hand thinking designed to fool himself into whatever narrative makes him feel better about not have done the right thing. Overt mendacity has morphed into lying-adjacent. The motto for this kind of ex-post-facto responsibility dodge is "I never meant to hurt you." (To which I always retort: "I wish you had. Then at least what you did would make sense.")

Then there's the perpetually late co-worker who insists at her salary review that she mostly arrived to work on time -- remembering, of course, how sincerely she swore to herself every day that she would. There's the diet embarked upon with such commitment that 12 pounds disappear from the mental scale by the end of the first day, or the swagger at the party adopted by the guy who just purchased a new gym membership. He borrows from an imagined future reality to pay for self-confidence in the present. It would almost be sweet if he weren't expecting you to be attracted now to the pecs he intends to be sporting in six months.

Where intentionitis gets truly toxic in the political arena. How many Congressman get re-elected promising for real the fiscal restraint they never even attempted last term? Look at President Bush trying to reconfigure the rationale for invading Iraq. To this day he seems to think that really not meaning to get us into a $3-trillion quagmire should absolve him of the fact that he did.

It's easy to make fun of intentionitis, but it's actually serious business. There are a lot of important things that don't happen because people replace actual action with intent, and then check it off their internal to-do list as "done."

For example, I'm sure the oil companies are absolutely and positively sincere in their current intention to never spill another drop of oil. So sincere, in fact, that they haven't redesigned their blow-out preventers so that they might work any better than they did before. Yet every oil exec I could dredge up would look me right in the eyes and insist with utter conviction that his company's "renewed" commitment to safety will work this time without a hitch.

Good intentions are perfectly laudable. We are much more likely to do the right thing if we already have the right thing in mind. But sincerity is like cotton candy. It looks good and tastes great -- but it melts in your mouth, and too much of it will make you sick. It's spiritually meaningless if not accompanied by action.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you don't know if you can follow through, then don't say you can. Hold others accountable. Let them know that doubling down on doubtful promises is far worse than saying nothing at all. Mostly don't try to put your thumb on the scales of the future by raising the volume on how much you really "mean it."

Beware the road to hell -- it's said to be paved with something.