On Being Late

girl being late

Growing up I had a friend who was always late. I loved her (still do!), but I have to admit it drove me crazy. As I grew older, I came to realize that many people are chronically late. I’ve heard this tendency downplayed, rationalized, and excused, leading me to ask two questions:

  1. “Does being late really matter?” and,
  2. “If so, what can be done about it?”

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Does Lateness Matter?

In a nutshell, the answer is, “Yes, it does.” Intentional or not, recurrent lateness should not be discounted because:

* Time is a valuable asset

In the current fast-paced environment, time has become an extremely valuable commodity. In some cases, time is worth even more than money, hence the growth in the popularity of convenience products and services. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that when we are late, we may be wasting someone else’s time and/or causing him/her a difficulty.

* Being late minimizes our ability to handle the unexpected

I often repeat the phrase “Good things happen when you show up early.” Being early gives us the chance to respond to situations we haven’t anticipated. For example, arriving early to a presentation at which the audio/visual system isn’t working provides a window for developing a back-up plan. Similarly, leaving early for a class or commitment affords a cushion to peacefully absorb any extra minutes that a traffic jam might add to the trip.

* Lateness is perceived as inconsiderate and rude

Lateness is one of the most common causes of conflicts in relationships, whether personal or professional. A common excuse from people who are late is, “I didn’t mean to,” or, “I couldn’t help it.” While this may be true periodically, this explanation rings hollow over time. Many people work hard to be on time, perhaps at great cost. Therefore, rationalizing perpetual lateness comes off as selfish.

* Lateness damages self-esteem

If you frequently greet your friends & colleagues with,  “I’m so sorry I’m late!” you are apologizing. We don’t apologize for behavior we are proud of, only that which we regret. Being late makes a bad first impression and makes us feel badly about ourselves.


What Can Be Done About Lateness?

There are a variety of reasons why people are repeatedly late. In order to find the best solution, it is critical to identify the root issue.

=> If you are chronically late, but only by 5-10 minutes…

You are likely doing a fair job of managing your time because the period of lateness is consistent. At some point in the past, you may have given yourself permission (perhaps subconsciously) to be late. If you desire to change this habit, try giving yourself a new message. Tell yourself that your lateness has been damaging and that this is not what you want to be known for going forward. Replace the late habit with the goal of being out the door 10 minutes early. Bring along something pleasurable to do should you arrive ahead of time (e.g. a favorite magazine), and reward yourself for meeting your goal over time.

=> If you are frequently and frustratingly late by varying amounts of time…

Multiple factors may be at play.

One is that you may be underestimating the time you need. This is common with ADD and similar executive functioning challenges, which make it hard to keep track of time. One tool that might help is the Time Timer. This product allows you to easily see the passage of time. Using this tool will assist you in getting a more realistic understanding of how long various tasks actually take (e.g. taking a shower, drying your hair, making breakfast, pumping gas, etc.). It is possible that you simply think you are moving faster than you are. Once you know how much time various steps require, it will be easier to avoid the temptation to “squeeze in” just one more thing because you will know without a doubt that this will make you late.

Another problem could be that you are easily distracted and end up wasting time on ancillary activities, such as checking email or surfing the Internet. If this sounds familiar, considering employing smartphone alarms, which you can set to repeatedly “count down” to the time you need to leave. Don’t feel silly if you need to set them to go off every 10 minutes in the morning. The idea is to bring your brain back into focus on what you need to be doing to get out the door, and nothing else.

You may also run late because you leave the “getting ready” process to the last minute. In other words, when you should be leaving you instead are running around trying to remember everything you need. One trick here is to establish a “staging area” where you put everything you will need when you step out the door. It is a good idea for each family member to have a space like this, because often we think of things we need to bring at random moments. Anytime you remember something you need, immediately put it in the staging area (or at least write it down and put the note in the staging area). Before you go to bed, check this space to be sure it is complete. You can also hang a checklist nearby to help you remember the things you take each day (e.g. keys, wallet, phone, etc.)

A fourth possibility is that others are making you late. This is common for parents. Maybe you are standing by the door and ready to go, but your child isn’t dressed, or is trying to find his library book, or is scrambling for her gym shoes. Children struggle with the same time management issues as adults, so consider if any of the scenarios above may be unfolding and try some of the tools with them as well. In addition, do what you can to establish an “on time-friendly” environment by:

  • Preparing as much as you can the night before (set out clothes, make lunches, pack the backpack)
  • Keeping needed supplies close to the door (e.g. hairbrushes, toothbrushes, sneakers, keys, etc.). Sending a child upstairs often equates to lost time.
  • Limiting distractions (e.g. electronic devices and TV) in the morning. A playlist that repeats the same series of songs each day can end up serving as a background “timer.”
  • Perform tasks in the same order each day, so children can develop a routine. For example, get up, open the shade, put on clothes, eat breakfast, brush hair, brush teeth, put on your shoes and stand by the door.

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Chronic lateness rarely serves us well. If this has been a lifelong struggle, consider bringing in some outside help to customize a plan to get you on track and on time.

Have you discovered any tricks that help you to avoid being late?