How Not to Be Late


Are you the sort of person who is always late to everything? Ever wish you could change, but never could figure out how? Well, I have some theories I’m going to share, which may not apply to everyone, but if you are late all the time and have convinced yourself it’s just part of who you are, perhaps this might be able to help you.

Firstly, a confession: I am not a late person myself. In fact, over the years I’ve had to wean myself off the habit of being ridiculously early. It used to be that I would show up two hours early for everything and then drink coffee or read while waiting for everyone else to show up. These days I have loosened up a lot and manage to be merely on time for most things. So these observations are not so much from my own experiences, but rather from helping other people with their own tardiness, by helping them to see what it is that makes them late, and what I do differently that makes me not late.

The most important thing I have noticed among people who are habitually late is that they often don’t have an accurate sense of how long specific activities take. For instance, my boyfriend was complaining that no matter what he does, he’s always late to work, despite waking up at an hour that he feels gives him more than enough time to get ready. According to him, it takes him 15 minutes to get ready for work — 5 to wake up and get out of bed, 5 to shower, and 5 to get dressed. So he sets his alarm for 20 minutes before he needs to leave the house, and then wonders why he’s always late. He claims it’s not his fault, that he’s doing everything right, but somehow the clock is plotting against him.

I suspected I knew why he was late, so a few mornings ago I timed him, and discovered that he actually spent 18 minutes in the shower. When he came out, I asked him how long he thought his shower took. “Oh, my showers take 5 minutes,” he replied, and when I told him the truth about how long they actually take, he didn’t believe me. I let him set the timer himself the following morning, and he was astonished. Also a shock for him: it takes him 10 minutes just to choose what he’s going to wear, and another 10 to get it all assembled. So that’s actually 20 minutes it takes him to get dressed, not 5 like he thought. Getting his briefcase loaded up takes another 5 minutes at the very least, and let’s not forget all the extras like fixing his hair, stopping to check his e-mail, and of course the morning commute (which also takes longer than he thought, and of course is subject to variation due to traffic). Simply put, he was not taking all these things into consideration, and the things he was including in his morning plan, he was not allowing enough time for.

He is not the only person who has this type of scheduling denial. All my life, roommates, friends, and colleagues have repeated the same patterns, never figuring out what is causing it. If something takes half an hour, they think it takes 15 minutes, and that’s all they allow. Me, if something takes half an hour, I allow at least 40 minutes, maybe more. You never know when the phone is going to ring, or you might spill something on yourself right before you were going to leave, so you have to build time in for those sorts of variables, which happen more frequently than we’d like to admit.

Does this mean you’ll have to get up a little earlier every morning? Yes, it does. But believe me, the amount of stress you’ll save by not being in a panicked rush every single day will far outweigh whatever small amount of sleep you’ll have to give up. And anyway, there’s nothing stopping you from going to bed twenty minutes earlier, if the sleep really is that big a deal for you. Better to have that rest at night when you can relax, then to oversleep in the morning and spend the rest of the day playing catch-up, which is exhausting to say the least.

If you manage to get your lateness habit under control, you may still find that you run behind from time to time. Nobody is perfect, but if you are going to be late to something where other people are expecting you to meet them, you should always, always take the time to call. Using an extra thirty seconds to stop and pick up the phone isn’t going to make a real difference, but it can significantly affect how your tardiness will be perceived by those having to adjust their day to your schedule. Don’t just rush and hope that you’ll be on time if you know you probably won’t. Make the call, and then if you happen to be on time anyway, it’ll be a pleasant surprise for all involved. Most people can forgive a few minutes here and there, but when someone doesn’t show up on time and doesn’t call, it’s extremely frustrating.

Obviously there are lots of reasons why someone could be late, but if it is a steady habit with you, there’s no reason it has to continue that way. Spend some effort timing yourself as you get ready to go to the places you are normally late to, and you’ll probably surprise yourself at just how long it takes you to get out of the house. If that is the case, start allowing at least that amount of time (preferably more) to get ready, and start enjoying the wonderful feeling of arriving to places relaxed and with a few minutes to spare.

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