How Do Punctual People Stay On-Plan?

Punctual people stay on plan: they start to prepare on time and then do only the things that are in their plan for as long as they planned to do them.

They are able to do this because they are able to simultaneously:

hold the plan in mind;

pay sufficient attention to the task at hand;

maintain a sense of the passage of time, which they confirm by checking the clock; and

keep in mind the goal of being on time.

Keeping track of the time is particularly important in the period before you need to start preparing. When you are involved in doing something that holds your attention it is easier to lose track of the time: “time flies when you’re having fun.” Time awareness is also important when you are doing an engaging on-plan task that can go on much longer than you planned, e.g., taking a shower, or going on the web to check email.

Keeping in mind your schedule and the goal of being on time is important when you are doing pleasurable on-plan tasks. The pleasure of drinking your morning coffee may motivate you to have another cup before you leave. The anticipatory pleasure you feel when you think about eating a brownie may tempt you to risk lateness by stopping off to buy one on the way to work.

When punctual people consider going off plan, they think, “If I do that I’m going to be late.” For them, going off-plan means being late. The prospect of being late then triggers negative emotions that motivate them to stay on plan. (I’ll discuss those negative emotions in the section on motivation.)

In addition, pride about being able to resist temptation, together with shame over succumbing to it, can motivate punctual people to stay on plan.

Thinking before acting can also reduce the intensity of feelings connected with the temptation. Using language to consider doing something gratifying produces less intense feelings than imagining engaging in that activity: e.g., thinking, “Should I buy that brownie?” produces less anticipatory pleasure than imagining the taste and soft moist texture of the brownie.

Also, if you can see, smell or already are tasting the temptation, “going into your head” to think about what to do distracts you from the tempting sensations, making it easier to stay on plan.

Even better, if the negative feelings associated with being late due to succumbing to the temptation are more powerful than the positive feelings associated with engaging with the temptation, the person perceives the temptation as “risky” and avoids it.

If these tactics haven’t prevented them from prolonging appealing on-plan tasks, punctual people are realistic about their ability to resist temptations. They plan to frontload engaging tasks to the night before or backload them to transit or the destination. One of my clients doesn’t have his morning coffee at home because he knows that he won’t stop at one cup. Instead, he puts his coffee into a travel cup and drinks it on the way. Backloading, a form of postponing gratification, can be especially helpful because thinking about engaging in the task in the near future creates a pleasurable sense of anticipation that motivates the person to get out the door.

Making and following plans with fixed sequences of tasks also helps people stay on plan by creating what we call “force of habit.” With repetition, conscious plans (“I have to do X then Y then Z.”) turn into automatic routines that, once they are switched on, direct behavior with minimal motivation or attention. Punctual people hear the alarm clock, roll out of bed and wash their faces, all without thinking “Hmm, what am I supposed to do now?” or “Can’t be late!” As a result, they can prepare while they are still half asleep.

If they are alert, they can think about other more interesting or important things while they are doing preparation tasks, making preparation a more pleasant and/or productive experience. Not only that, thinking about other things distracts the person from temptations in the present.

Keeping the goal of being punctual in mind means that when uncontrollable and unexpected events take them off-plan, force of habit doesn’t make punctual people robotically pick up where they left off. Instead, negative feelings about being late motivate them to make changes to their plans, cutting short or eliminating steps as necessary: the alarm clock doesn’t go off, so the person decides to skip breakfast to make up for lost time.

Staying on-plan also makes it easier to budget time. At first, punctual people make time estimates for preparation and transit by adding together their estimates for the individual tasks. They then follow the plan and note how long it actually takes them to prepare and how long it takes to get to the destination. They budget time for preparation as a whole and transit as a whole—they don’t need to budget time for, or measure how long it takes them to do, specific tasks.

Next: Why do late people go off-plan?