Part I: Why Am I Always Late?
If you are someone who has problems being on time, or you live, work or socialize with a person who does, you know how much of a problem lateness can be. Chronic lateness stresses personal relationships and undermines careers. By making a bad impression on a date or at a job interview, even a single lateness can change the direction of a person’s life.
Why then are some people always late? Punctual people take for granted the skills they have which allow them to be on time and conclude that chronically late people are selfish or passive-aggressive. While this is sometimes the case, in my work with chronically late psychotherapy clients I have found that most are frustrated by their inability to be on time.
Chronically late people have issues with:
• Planning: they don’t plan, knowingly risk lateness when they plan, or, as is often the case, they plan unrealistically;
• Preparation and Transit: they put off starting to prepare or leave, are disorganized and/or get sidetracked;
and, more rarely,
• Motivation: their motives for being punctual are weak or they get something out of being late.
I will be discussing many causes and related solutions. If at any point you want to get an overview, you can go to the Summary of Causes link at the top of each page.
Or, if you’re in a rush (and this may be part of the problem!) you can find a quick how-to guide at: lateness.info
If we want to understand why people fail at certain things, and figure out what they need to do in order to be successful, it helps to first look at people who are good at those things. This is the approach I take on this site. So, before we start discussing planning problems, let’s start with a complementary question:
How do punctual people plan?
Punctual people are organized, cautious and realistic when they plan.
For things they do regularly, punctual people create routines made up of logical sequences of tasks. They don’t have to keep track of everything they’ve done and everything that they have yet to do, and don’t waste time deciding what to do next; instead, they only need to remember the next task in the sequence. Not only that, with repetition these routines become automatic: the person wakes up, washes his or her face, goes to the kitchen to heat the water for coffee, etc., all without ever having to stop and think “What now?” Punctual people may also improve their efficiency by planning for realistic multitasking.
When they plan for new or uncommon preparation and transit tasks (e.g., getting to the airport for a flight) they make a detailed list of everything they will need to do and take. They keep thinking about the list and add to it when they remember things that they have left out.
Punctual people also make preparation quicker and easier by doing as much as they can in advance. To allow themselves to sleep as late as possible, they prepare as much as they can the night before. They choose clothes and gather together the things they will need to take, making it less likely that they will have to double back to get something they have left behind.
They may also make preparation quicker by moving preparation tasks that they don’t absolutely need to do at home to transit or the destination: e.g. drinking their morning coffee on the way to work.
That said, people can be punctual even if they are inefficient—providing that they allow themselves enough time for those inefficiencies. I have had obsessive-compulsive clients who were consistently punctual because they realistically allowed themselves enough time to repeatedly check that they had locked their front doors.
Many of these obsessive-compulsive people were almost as anxious about things going wrong on the way as they were about the security of their home: they allowed themselves so much time to get to my office that they were often thirty minutes early. They represent an extreme example of a general rule: punctual people ensure that they will arrive on time almost all of the time by being pessimists when it comes to budgeting time.
Punctual people budget the maximum time it has taken them to do familiar preparation and travel tasks. They allow time for common waits and transit delays (e.g. waiting for the train, traffic jams) and then add some extra time for infrequent events (train breakdowns).
They make high estimates of how long it will take to do unfamiliar preparation and travel tasks. They don’t trust public transport timetables: if a bus is supposed to run every fifteen minutes, they assume that they might have to wait thirty. They go online to find out about transit service disruptions. Before they book flight connections they go to websites which show past flight arrival and departure times (e.g. flightstats.com)
Punctual people also buffer their estimates. The greater their motivation to be on time in a situation, and the more unfamiliar the situation, the greater the amount of time that they add on “just in case.”
Although punctual people would prefer to arrive right on time every time, they understand that not being able to predict exactly how long it will take them to get to their destination makes this an impossible goal. They know that allowing time for transit delays means that they will only arrive exactly on time if things go badly. Punctual people accept that pessimistic planning to ensure consistent punctuality results in arriving early almost all of the time.
Indeed, if they finish preparing just in time, or arrive right on time, they consider this to be good luck that can’t be relied on and make a mental note to give themselves even more time the next time.
When they plan for situations where arriving early will mean having to wait, they plan how to use time spent waiting productively or enjoyably, thereby ensuring that they won’t feel frustrated about wasting time.
Indeed, to convert earliness into an empowering choice, punctual people may plan to arrive early enough to do something satisfying at (or near) the destination. They may plan to arrive fifteen minutes early to work in order to read email and plan for the day ahead; may look forward to having time to work without being interrupted by coworkers or clients. Some of my psychotherapy clients arrive early enough to go to a coffee shop across from my building. They say they aren’t worried about being late when there are delays and enjoy relaxing and thinking about what to talk about in the session.
To summarize, punctual people are:
• They make detailed lists of everything they will need to do and take when they plan for new preparation or transit tasks;
• create preparation routines made up of logical sequences of tasks;
• do as much preparation as they can in advance;
• shift preparation tasks to transit or the destination.
• They budget the maximum time it has taken them to do familiar tasks;
• allow time for common waits and transit delays and then add some extra time for infrequent glitches;
• make high estimates of how long it will take to do unfamiliar preparation and travel tasks;
• buffer their estimates “just to be sure”.
• They accept that arriving early almost all of the time is the price of consistent punctuality;
• plan to use early time productively. Indeed, they may plan to arrive early enough to do something satisfying.
Now that we understand how punctual people plan, let’s look at How Late People Plan