Part II: How to Become a Punctual Person

To understand this page you will need to be familiar with types that I have discussed in previous pages on this site. So, if you’ve come to this page directly, I suggest that you either:

first read the pages on how punctual and late people plan, starting with How Do Punctual People Plan?, before you return to this page; or

go to Summary of Causes, where you will find short descriptions of the types along with links to detailed descriptions and cause-specific solutions.


If you are a late person, by this point you’ve probably recognized yourself in some of the descriptions of the various types of late people. While reading the descriptions of punctual people you may have been inspired to make some changes based on how punctual people plan, carry out their plans, and are motivated.

Becoming an Effective Planner

This section starts with a planning exercise. After that you will find techiniques for dealing with specific planning issues.

Even if you don’t think that you have planning issues, doing this exercise will help you identify emotional factors that contribute to your lateness.

Grab a pen and paper, or open a computer document and do the exercise as you read it: just reading it will be boring and not nearly as helpful.


1. Task Sequencing and Time Budgeting

First, note down how long you have been allowing for preparation and how long you have been allowing for your commute to work (or to somewhere else you go regularly).

Then write a list of things you do for preparation. Do the same for transit. Now, write down time estimates for each task. Sum the preparation task times; sum the transit task times.

In making the list, did you include common waits in between tasks (e.g. waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom, waiting the train) and things that you regularly do during preparation and transit that aren’t essential (e.g. checking email or using the toilet)? Did you include every step of your commute, like walking to and from the train? If not, you might be constantly surprised how long it takes you because you aren’t allowing time for everything you do.

Are your estimates based on how long those tasks actually have taken you or on how long you think they should take? Are you an efficiency or task-value shouldist? If they were based on your experience, were they your best, shortest times? Are you a mastery seeker?

Now make new lists that include everything you do for prepartion and transit. Write them down in the order that you think you should do them: this is your chance to create an efficient preparation routine.

Make a new set of maximum time estimates. How do the maximum totals compare to how long you’ve been budgeting and to your original exercise totals? Do the differences account for your lateness?

2. Time Buffering

Now create lists of less common preparation delays (e.g., misplaced keys) and transit delays (e.g., jams due to car accidents, train breakdowns) that you have encountered. Estimate their maximum durations and how many times they occur each month.

Look at the most frequent and longest delays. Think about the consequences of being that late that often. Then decide on preparation and transit buffers that would reduce these latenesses to a level that others would accept.

For example, if there are two train breakdowns per month that slow you down by 20 minutes, you could leave 10 minutes earlier to reduce your latenesses to 10 minutes twice a month.

To come up with your total estimated preparation and transit times, add the buffers to your calculated maximum estimates, then add another five minutes to each just to be sure.

3. Testing

Over at least five days measure how long it takes you to prepare and how long it takes to get to your destination. Cell phones have stopwatches and notepads in which you can record your results. If you are a sleeper, keep track of the times you go to sleep and wake up.

If you find that you are forgetting to time yourself, or are setting the timer but forgetting to check it, you can set a daily alarm on your phone to a time when you are sure you will be at your destination. When you hear it you can write down when you woke up, when you left and when you arrived.

Do things at a pace that you will be able to keep to on a regular basis: you aren’t trying to measure your record time.

How do your actual results compare to long you had been allowing yourself and those you calculated in the exercise? I’ve found that once late people take time to realistically think about how long things have actually taken, many are able to make fairly accurate estimates.

If it took you longer to prepare or to get to your destination than your maximum budgeted time, figure out why this was the case. You might want to time specific tasks if you suspect that you underestimated their duration.

You now need to budget the maximum amount of time it actually took you for preparation, plus another 5 minutes. Why the extra five minutes? Because it’s important to get in the habit of being extra-cautious and to get used to the idea of being early. Do the same for transit. If an infrequent delay happened during your survey period, use the technique for evaluating delays.

Of course, if you find that you are arriving more than five minutes early to your destination all the time, you can adjust your time budget.

4. Emotions and Self-Diagnosis

This completes the technical part of the exercise. Now, we shall investigate your emotional responses.

Take a moment to remember how your felt as you read—and hopefully did the written part of—this exercise. Any negative feelings that you felt are probably part of the reason you plan the way you do.

Did the very idea of making a list sound boring and tedious? Did the idea of keeping to the plan feel restrictive? Are you a creative?

Did you find yourself reluctant to write down the actual amount of time it takes you to do things? Were you shocked by the idea of using maximum times, or by the pessimistic totals you came up with? Are you an efficiency or time-value shouldist? A mastery seeker?

Does the idea of giving yourself plenty of time make the whole thing seem just too easy? Are you a sprinter?

Did you feel resentful that I was telling you what to do? Are you a top dog, rebel or servant?


Now let’s consider some techniques for dealing with specific planning issues.

If you are a creative, effective planning for punctuality will mean going against the way you like to do things. Try to do the planning exercise—at least the task organization and time estimation part of it. You might find that visualizing the processes of preparation and transit makes the exercise more interesting. You can think of the exercise as a kind of choreography.

If you find that you can’t bring yourself to start the exercise, or you abandon it along the way, find someone who can help you work on it. If you ask someone who is punctual, I’d suggest asking them to read the section on creatives so they can better understand why it’s so difficult for you.

Efficiency shouldists and mastery seekers can use self-talk and tell themselves, “It’s disappointing that things won’t always go perfectly, but if I accept that fact I will feel less frustrated and have the satisfaction of being punctual.” The first half of the sentence might make you feel sad or frustrated, but hopefully the second part feels at least slightly empowering.

Efficiency or task-value shouldists can reduce the frustration they feel when they imagine waiting by thinking of waits and delays as normal parts of the trip rather than unnecessary obstructions to it, and by planning to use time spent waiting productively.

If you are a shouldist who needs more time than others, underlying feelings of inferiority and shame may be preventing you from budgeting as much time as you really need. Keeping the focus on yourself and your own realities rather than comparing yourself to others may help. When my clients express how they don’t understand why they can’t be like other people, I empathize with their frustration. I then use the analogy of a card game in which you have a less than perfect set of cards. You can waste your time being frustrated over what you don’t have, or you can focus on how to effectively play the cards you’ve been dealt.

Mastery seekers can think about how to more masterfully deal with inevitable delays and hitches: e.g. by cultivating accepting equanimity rather than impatient frustration. They might want to consider reading Csikszentmihalyi’s books on creating “flow.”

Instead of aiming to arrive right on time, mastery seekers can preserve some of the challenge of their marksman approach by changing the target to one that doesn’t risk lateness. Add five minutes to the difference between your best and worst transit times, then aim to arrive exactly that number of minutes early; arrive any earlier or later than that and you’ve missed the target.

For example, if on a good day it takes you fifty minutes to get to work, but on a bad day it takes you sixty five minutes, aim to arrive twenty minutes (65 – 50 + 5) early. Have a bad day and you will still arrive with five minutes to spare. If you are balking at the idea of arriving twenty minutes early on a day when everything goes perfectly, remember that those days will be rare. That said, if you find that you are consistently arriving more than five minutes early, you can adjust your target arrival time.

If you’re a sprinter, planning to be consistently on time means giving up the exciting threat of lateness. You can use the mastery seeker calculation of five minutes more than your range of transit times to set yourself an arrival deadline. If you count arriving any time after that as a failure, you can experience the threat of failure and still be consistently on time.

You can make morning preparation feel more urgent and exciting by reducing the time between waking and leaving: front-load preparation tasks to the night before and back-load them to transit or the destination. You might take your shower the night before and have your morning coffee on the way or at work.

If you are a waiting avoider whose main concern is wasting time, plan to use your time enjoyably or productively: smart phones and tablets make this much easier nowadays. You might consider time waiting as an opportunity to relax from your hectic pace. If you come up with some ideas but are still having strong negative feelings about waiting it might be that other issues are at play. Try to identify the emotion you are feeling as you think about having to wait; remember what you have felt while waiting.

If you are aware of feeling anxious, you may avoid waiting because it kicks up old fears of being stood up. If this is the case, evaluate how likely being stood up really is in the specific situation with the specific person. If it is likely, you might feel more empowered by deciding on a deadline after which you will leave.

If you find that you are feeling frustrated and angry you may dislike waiting because you like to feel in control. Rather than fuming about the situation, remind yourself of the fact that your anger is controlling your behavior in a way that that is against your interests. Rather than avoiding waiting, you would be better off learning to let go of the anger so that you can wait more comfortably when it’s in your interest.

Tools for Dealing with Feelings

Even if the approaches I’ve described are helpful, chances are you are still going to be feeling some negative emotions that will motivate you to return to old ways of planning. Anger is particularly likely to make you want to dig your heels in.

One way of dealing with these emotions is to spend a few minutes focusing on how the emotion feels in your body. Are you aware of muscle tightening? Of sensations in your chest or belly? See if you can relax around the physical sensations rather than trying to make them go away. Initially, the emotion may feel more intense, but if you focus for at least five minutes you will probably find that it begins to lessen.

You may have to bring your attention back to your body a number of times after discovering that you are back in your thoughts.

I suspect that this body-focus reduces the intensity of emotions by diverting mental energy away from the thinking that is producing the emotion. This meditation also gets you used to “sitting with” uncomfortable emotions rather than immediately taking action to make them go away.

Another option is doing some deep breathing. As you inhale focus on releasing your chest and belly so that they can expand; anxiety makes these muscles contract making it harder to breath in. If you find that you are having to forcefully suck your breath in, chances are that your rib cage and abdomen are tensed up. Allow your breath to naturally flow out on the exhalation; the diaphragm—the main muscle involved in breathing—relaxes on the out breath. The feeling should be like a sigh of relief. Do this for at least five rounds.

In addition to making it easier to plan for punctuality, reducing the intensity of emotions also makes it easier to evaluate the thoughts that accompany them. Thoughts “feel truer” when they are accompanied by feelings. If we feel frustrated while we are thinking “This shouldn’t happen.” this idea feels true; if we feel neutral it’s just an idea that we can examine; if we feel relaxed and content it even feels wrong.

Next: How to stay on-plan