What Motivates People to be Punctual?

By this point, you might be thinking that chronically late people are late because they are too emotional. But punctual people are also motivated by their feelings. As I wrote in the section on how punctual people stay on plan: “The prospect of being late then triggers negative emotions that motivate them to stay on plan.”

Granted, ask punctual people what motivates them to be on time and chances are they will talk about the consequences of lateness–“I don’t want to be fired”—or their attitudes to it—“It’s rude to keep people waiting.” However, external events and internal thoughts only influence behavior to the extent that they trigger feelings, i.e., emotions and physically-based responses such as physical pleasure, hunger and pain. (If you want to read more about this, Damacio’s book Descartes’ Error is a good starting point.)

So, what then are the feelings that motivate punctuality? Generally speaking:

People are motivated to be on time by the negative feelings they have when they anticipate being late and/or by the positive feelings they have when they anticipate being punctual.

Feelings that motivate people to be on time can come from four sources.

Social and Professional Consequence Based Motivations

People may be motivated to be punctual by emotions they feel when they think about social and professional consequences of lateness and punctuality.

Fear triggered by imagining others’ angry reactions to lateness can be a powerful motivator. Anticipation of longer term repercussions of recurring lateness—undermined relationships and promotions, docked pay or vacation time, even job loss—can also make people feel motivating sadness, fear, and/or shame.

People may be motivated by the distress that they feel when they empathically put themselves in the waiting person’s shoes. They may then feel guilty for making the person feel bad. The more they dislike waiting themselves, the greater the distress they feel when they put themselves in the other person’s shoes, and the greater the guilt-based motivation.

More selfishly, people may be sure to be on time in the expectation that others will do so in return: being punctual is a way of preventing feelings of annoyance and frustration caused by waiting for others.

Although people don’t specifically thank or reward each other for being on time, the punctual person may see arriving on time—or earlier—as one of a number of ways of impressing and pleasing others. At work, the person may believe that impressing others will lead to material rewards such as bonuses and promotions. One of my most punctual clients told me that always being early was part of her plan to become my favorite client. When this is the case, punctuality is motivated by anticipatory happiness and pride.

Punctual people may see punctuality as contributing to, and lateness as undermining, organizations they work for and identify with. Punctuality is associated with pleasure from anticipating sharing in the material rewards of organizational success (e.g., raises and bonuses), and/or the pride of belonging to a successful organization. The idea that one’s behavior impacts the organization also creates feelings of empowerment.

Destination-Related Motivations

Secondly, people may be motivated by feelings related to the destination. Here punctuality is the product of positive feelings that people feel when they anticipate being at the destination, combined with the frustration they feel when they imagine of missing out on some or all of an activity due to lateness. The prospect of having to pay hundreds of dollars for a missed flight creates frustration and fear that motivates all but the most habitually late people to be on time.

Self-evaluative Motivations

Thirdly, punctual people can be motivated by self-evaluative emotions related to their own judgment of what lateness or punctuality says about them. These motivations produce more consistent punctuality since they come into play even if the person isn’t looking forward to being at the destination and isn’t expecting negative social consequences.

The prospect of arriving late may trigger guilt about breaking social rules that the person has internalized. When considering whether to keep someone waiting in order to do something pleasurable, the person may feel shame about being selfish. The punctual person may consider lateness a sign of shameful incompetence.

On the other hand, putting one’s wants—even needs—aside so that others won’t wait and organizations one belongs to will prosper may create a pride-inducing, self-esteem enhancing, sense of being a caring and responsible “good” person. Anticipating arriving on time—particularly in a new situation—can create feelings of mastery.

Word-Triggered Motivations

In the final category of motivations, repeated pairings of the word “late” with negative feelings, and the thought “on time” with positive ones, cause the words to be directly associated with the feelings. As a result, just thinking “late” causes the person to “feel bad”; thinking “on time” makes the person “feel good.”

In effect, punctuality becomes a value in itself. This word-triggered motivation is the most rapid, most automatic and least situation-dependent motivation for punctuality.

Next: Are late people motivated to be late?