Why Do Late People Go Off-Plan?

In addition to being poor planners, many chronically late people go off-plan: they postpone preparation or departure, prolong pleasurable on-plan tasks, and/or go off-track to do off-plan activities during preparation and transit. If they give themselves more time, they simply spend more time off-plan.

Going off-plan can be a result of:

Competing Motivations

In the case of competing motivations, people go off-plan because feelings triggered by the idea of doing something—or of not doing something—overcome their motivation for punctuality.

When indulgers consider going off-track to do something they enjoy, the anticipatory pleasure they feel overpowers the negative feelings they feel when they think about being late: “I’ll be late if I eat that now; Oh, but it looks soooo gooood!” If they decide to not yield to temptation—”Can’t do that!”—the idea of missing out on good feelings triggers frustration or sadness that makes them reconsider: “Well…then again.” Once they have given in, the desire to prolong the pleasure keeps them off-track. In additiion, the idea of giving up the pleasure they now feel triggers even stronger frustration or sadness.

These feelings also make it hard for indulgers to tear themselves away from pleasurable off-plan activities that they are doing when it’s time to start preparing. Not only that, indulgers may struggle to move on from enjoyable on-plan tasks: when they consider ending a relaxing or invigorating morning shower, intense anticipatory sadness prevents them from turning the faucet.

Indulgers may have particularly strong positive reactions to certain activities: showers or baths, food, newspapers or soap operas. Alternately or additionally, they may have never learned to delay gratification when they were children.

When caretakers say things like, “No, you can’t have ice cream now, you can have it after dinner. Come and help me set the table?”, they teach the child how to use the tactics of postponement and distraction to deal with temptation. “Spoiled” children who are used to instant gratification don’t develop these skills. Nor do neglected children, whose parents aren’t around to teach them these skills. Children who grow up in environments where good feelings are rare and unpredictable learn to grab at things that make them feel good whenever they can.

People who are experiencing negative feelings such as anxiety and depression are particularly likely to be indulgers: they seek out good feelings to get rid of the bad.

Indulgers enjoy doing the activity, achievers look forward to completing it: they experience an empowering and self-esteem enhancing sense of achievement when they anticipate completing off-plan tasks. Ironically, once they get moving, procrastinators may become achievers as they go off-track to take care of chores they’ve been putting off for ages.

People pleasers go off-track as a result of the Guilt and fear they feel when they consider not doing things that others want. When they are in conversations that have gone on longer than they expected them to, the guilt they feel about hurting the other person’s feelings, and/or fear of making the other person angry, prevents them from saying “Sorry but I’ve got to go.” Guilt and fear can also lead them to agree to do things that they know they won’t have time for: “Um, yeah… sure… I can take you home on the way.”

When the alarm clock rings, fatigue overpowers sleepers’ motivations for punctuality, motivating them to hit the snooze button. They may suffer from sleep deprivation as a result of insomnia or poor quality sleep. They may be busy people who don’t give themselves as much sleep as they need. Many sleepers are night owls who go to bed just hours before they need to wake up in the morning.

Having time to spare before leaving is particularly dangerous for indulgers, achievers and people pleasers: they see no reason no to get involved in off-plan activities. Sleepers may decide to rest in a comfortable chair and then fall back asleep.

Competing motivations often operate subconsciously. Instead of making a decision to go off-plan, indulgers, people pleasers and sleepers may feel as if they are unwillingly controlled by forces outside of their control. They may think things like, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” or “I really should get up now.” but their motivations for punctuality aren’t strong enough to overcome the competing motivations that delay them until the activity they are doing comes to a natural end.

Impeding Motives

When preparation avoiders, transit avoiders and destination avoiders think about what’s to come, they feel negative emotions that make them drag their feet.

Preparation avoiders may dislike brushing their teeth or taking showers. They may dread having to look at themselves in the bathroom mirror because they dislike how they look. Some sartorial perfectionists become stressed just thinking about having to put together the perfect outfit.

Preparation avoiders may find the whole endlessly-repeated preparation process boring. This is particularly likely to be the case for creatives, who are put off by the idea of doing mundane preparation tasks that don’t offer an opportunity for personal expression, won’t lead to a product they can feel proud of, and that others can appreciate.

People who haven’t developed automatic preparation routines (often the case for creatives and people with attention issues) have to hold in mind everything they have to do and repeatedly decide what to do next. They may avoid preparation because it feels like a major project requiring an excessive amount of mental effort.

Transit avoiders may dread dealing with traffic, riding in crowded public transportation, or being exposed to bad weather. They may fear for their safety. They may suffer from social anxiety and/or claustrophobic fears of being trapped in trains or elevators.

When destination avoiders think about being at the destination they may experience anticipatory boredom, frustration, social alienation or physical discomfort. They may have social anxiety, may be afraid of specific people at the destination. They may avoid the destination because they fear that they won’t be able to control their own anger at others. Most chronically late people avoid destinations they’ve been late to before: in a vicious cycle, when they think about those destinations, resentment they feel when they remember others’ disapproval, and/or shame they feel when they think about their failure to be on time, makes them drag their feet.

Similarly, people who repeatedly go off-plan may avoid preparation and transit because they have come to associate preparation and transit with the stress of running late. Normal waits are frustrating, unexpected delays even more so. Every minute waiting for the traffic light to change or for the elevator to arrive is an infuriating additional minute of lateness. Indeed, because “a watched pot never boils” the waits seem to last for much longer than they really do.

These emotional cycles keep going because they operate subconsciously: if avoiders were to think “I’m going to delay leaving because I don’t like running late.” they would then think, “Wait a minute! That’s going to make me run even later!” This thought would produce an increase in stress that would (hopefully) motivate them to get to their destination.

Avoiders may reduce negative feelings by consciously deciding to postpone preparation, transit or arrival; events that are further off in the future produce less intense anticipatory emotion. When destination avoiders intentionally delay arrival they also feel relief because they expect to spend less time at the destination. For example, if when it’s time to leave a transit avoider thinks, “I’ll leave in five minutes.”, she feels a sense of relief that is more powerful than her negative feelings about being five minutes late. Making a decision to leave, albeit later, also reduces her anxiety about not being able to bring herself to go at all.

Avoiders may try to escape the negative feelings associated with what’s to come by turning to indulger and achiever gratifications. When the morning alarm rings, going back to sleep provides avoiders with even more effective relief from negative feelings.

It’s important to note that, even if avoiders make a conscious decision to postpone departure, they usually aren’t aware of the underlying emotions that drive them to make that decision. When my transit avoider clients arrive late, they never say, “I’m late because I was dreading the trip.” In therapy they are able to acknowledge disliking the commute, but when they are at home they don’t connect their reluctance to leave to their feelings about the commute. Instead, if they pause to wonder why they are avoiding leaving, they decide that they don’t feel like leave a home that feels comfortable and/or secure. Although one of my transit avoider clients truly likes being at home, another noted that when he doesn’t have to go out he often feels bored and trapped at home. He experiences his home as secure in that moment precisely because he fears transit.

I suspect that transit and destination avoiders attribute their avoidance to wanting to stay at home rather than not wanting to deal with transit or the destination because focusing on home feels better. When they think about home they feel comfortable and in control; even when they think about leaving home, they just feel a bit sad. On the other hand, when they think about what’s to come, the feelings are all bad. The negative feelings can be especially intense for avoiders who are afraid of transit or the destination: in addition to the fear, they may feel ashamed of, and angry with themselves for, their “crazy” or “cowardly” feelings.

Procrastination Tactics

If competing and impeding motivations are about as strong as their motivations for punctuality, people feel caught in an internal tug of war. When this happens, they may use procrastination tactics to convince themselves that they can go off-plan and still not be (too) late. This breaks the deadlock by suppressing negative emotions connected with being late. Once they have gone off-plan, they use these tactics to make staying off-plan a more pleasant experience, which also delays them getting back on plan.

Speeders don’t fear lateness when they go off-plan because they unrealistically believe that they can make up for lost time by speeding though tasks.

Speeders ignore the fact that they are already doing most preparation tasks about as quickly as they can. As a result, speeding up is likely to make them less efficient by making them more clumsy: falling over is a likely consequence of trying to put your pants on more quickly.

Speeders also forget that they aren’t Olympic athletes who can sprint full throttle for blocks on end, or racing drivers who can put the pedal down without worrying about traffic lights.

Like sprinters, speeders’ unrealistic expectations may be based on childhood experiences where they could rush at the last minute and still do well enough to avoid an unpleasant outcome. Unlike sprinters, they don’t enjoy the rush itself.

(Note that the fact that a person rushes doesn’t mean that he or she is a sprinter or a speeder; rushing may simply be a product of a late start due to competing or impeding motivations.)

Justers neutralize fear of lateness by convincing themselves that putting off preparing or leaving, or going off-plan, will only delay them by a small amount of time. They figure that they will only be just a little bit late, or they that can make up for lost time by rushing. They then repeatedly use this justing tactic to justify staying off-plan.

Justers think things like “I’ll start preparing in a few minutes.”; “It’ll only take me just five minutes to do this.”; and “I’m going to stop in just a second.” Words like “just”, “only” and “few” help to make the delays seem minimal. The durations they quote are stock phrases rather than considered time estimates.

Some justers believe that others won’t mind or notice if they are “just a few” minutes late. They may not consider arriving five minutes after the start time as truly “late.” However, once they have gone off-plan, competing or impeding motivations may prevent them from getting back on-plan.

Eventually they get to a point where they realize that they will be so late that serious consequences are inevitable, triggering intense negative emotions that send them scrambling.

Achievers are especially likely to be justers. They often underestimate how long it will take them to do chores that involve repeating tasks that could be quick—but usually aren’t. When they consider going through a pile of backlogged mail or email they assume the quickest possible outcome: tearing open the envelope and immediately throwing the contents away, or deleting the email after glancing of the subject. They don’t consider the fact that some of these tasks may actually take much longer and may be gateways to other activities: “Did I really spend that much money on my credit card? Let me look at the charges.”; “Oh, she’s posted new Facebook pics! Let me see!”

Now let’s look at the attention problems that can also lead people to go off-plan.

Summary of factors that lead people to go off plan