Note that for the sake of brevity, I refer to the various issues leading to lateness in terms of types: e.g. “improvisers” who are late because they take an improvisational approach to planning. These types are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, I have found that most chronically late people show the characteristics of more than one type.
As one might expect, many people who are always running late take the opposite approach to planning from their punctual counterparts. Some don’t plan carefully. Most underestimate how much time they will need.
Some chronically late people are improvisers. If they plan at all, they take a casual “grab bag” approach to planning in which they make mental notes of tasks that happen to come to mind. During preparation, these people waste time trying to remember what they have to do and deciding what to do next.
If they do try and plan, many chronically late people are task omitters who don’t allow time for certain preparation and transit tasks–typically relatively short ones that together can add up to significant amounts of time. Brushing their teeth takes “no time at all.” When it comes budgeting time for their commute, they often fixate on the leg of their journey that covers the most ground and forget the other parts. If they drive, they leave out the time it takes to find a parking spot, walk to the destination, and wait for the elevator.
Remarkably, some task omitters don’t leave any time for transit: they unintentionally plan to leave home at the time they need to be at the destination. One of my chronically late clients said that when he wakes up he reminds himself that he needs to leave at 8:15 am in order to arrive at 9:00, but in the course of preparation 9:00 am somehow becomes the departure time he is aiming for.
When it comes to figuring out how much time to allow for the tasks they do plan for, the majority of chronically late people are idealists who underestimate how long it will take them to do those tasks.
Idealists don’t budget time for common waits, delays and interruptions. When they estimate how long it will take them to drive to their destination, they envision an unbroken series of green lights along empty roads leading to an open parking spot. They expect to arrive at the train platform and immediately step on the train. They never allow time for waiting for elevators. When they arrive late, they blame their lateness on the delays and waits, rather than on their failure to plan for them.
Chronically late idealists fixate on their very best times: if one day the drive to work takes 30 minutes instead of the usual 45, they start budgeting 30 minutes. Or, even less realistically, if the drive takes 30 minutes at 2 a.m., they give themselves 30 minutes for the rush hour commute.
Many idealists also underestimate how long they will need because they believe that they are more efficient than they really are. They ignore the fact that some days or times of day they are more on the ball than others: morning drowsiness doesn’t enter into their calculations. Some make estimates that might be reasonable for other people, but not for them: for example, some are sartorial perfectionists who expect that it will take them five minutes to put together the perfect outfit, even though it always takes them at least thirty.
Personality Traits Underlying Ineffective Planning
I’ve found that these planning issues are usually linked to one (or more) of three personality traits.
Creatives have a style of thinking dominated by processes that are usually centralized in the right half of the brain. They are typically people who are drawn to the arts rather than the sciences. Instead of relying on left-brain based language and numbers to objectively and logically classify and analyze the world, creatives’ thinking is based on their sensory experiences and personal emotional responses. They seek to create things that allow them to share the things that move them.
Put crudely: creatives care about feelings; analyzers care about facts. When a creative hears the word “sun” she might remember a Van Gogh painting with a bright yellow sun then smile as she remembers the relaxing warmth of the sun on her skin when she went to the beach. An “analyzer” might wonder about the distance to the sun how long it takes light from the sun to reach the earth.
Creatives are poor planners because the idea of listing and sequencing mundane tasks and then calculating how much time to budget for them sounds too boring and tedious. Not only that, following a fixed sequence of tasks feels unnatural and constricting; creatives like to be spontaneous, navigating according to how they feel in the moment. On the other hand, many punctual people dislike uncertainty and feel an empowering and reassuring sense of control when they plan.
Another impediment to effective planning is that creatives tend to think about situations by imagining them. Analyzers can quickly think, “I need to walk to the train, wait for the train, take the train, then walk to work.” For creatives, imagining the whole process of transit door to door would take much more time and mental effort. So they only think of the most obvious preparation and transit steps and, as a result, underestimate how much time they will need.
Imagining situations instead of using language to think about them also leads creatives to have stronger emotional reactions when they plan than analyzers. These reactions get in the way of prudent planning. Imagining having to wait for the train provokes anticipatory boredom and impatience that they suppress by going into denial: “Nah, it won’t happen!” It feels so much better to imagine arriving at the platform and immediately stepping on the train.
Intense feelings may also be the reason that idealists don’t adjust their expectations in spite of past experience.
People I call shouldists stubbornly expect things to be the way they want them to be, rather than how things actually have been. Their belief that certain things are “right” gives them a comforting sense of order and security. They feel proud, possibly even superior, about being right; just considering the possibility that they might be wrong brings up feelings of confusion and shame that get in the way of them changing their expectations.
Efficiency shouldists refuse to allow time for waits, delays, and their own inefficiency because they rigidly hold onto the belief that things should always go like clockwork. Instead of coming to terms with the fact that things will never work perfectly and then figuring out how to deal with that reality, efficiency shouldists get angry and dig in their heels. When they encounter a delay, rather than noting that it could happen again, they decide that it is a mistake that shouldn’t happen again. When it repeatedly does, they become more and more outraged: “Why don’t the trains run on time?!!!” They don’t rethink their estimates because they consider allowing time for delays to be a disempowering capitulation to others’ inefficiency.
Efficiency shouldists may also apply their unrealistic expectations to themselves, believing that they should always be perfectly efficient. When they aren’t, they get angry with themselves: “What’s wrong with you?!” They refuse to give themselves more time because the idea of not living up to their expectations creates feelings of shame. If they need more time than others to do things, they see changing their expectations as an admission of inferiority; here the shame is especially intense.
Task-value shouldists budget time based on their evaluation of the value of the task. If they consider their morning routine unimportant, they decide that it should take them “no time at all.” When it comes to the commute, they judge value by the distance covered. They may consider twenty minutes for an eight mile train ride reasonable, ten minutes to walk half a mile to the bus stop barely acceptable, ten minutes going nowhere while waiting for the bus outrageous. So they give themselves five minutes for the walk and none for the wait. When I ask task-value shouldists to consider how long it has taken them in the past, they reluctantly agree that their estimates are unrealistic, but hold on to them nonetheless. After figuring out with one of my late clients how long he needs allow himself to get to my office, he noted how he was balking at how his reasonable “forty” minute commute (the train ride on a good day) had now “turned into” what he felt was an excessive hour and ten minutes (including walking, waiting and the average delay en route). He realized that it didn’t make sense, but he doubted that he would budget as much time as it actually takes him because this felt like a waste of his limited time–which he noted was ironic given how much time he wastes procrastinating.
Mastery seekers’ idealistic expectations are sustained by hope. Instead of rigidly expecting that things should work perfectly, they believe that they can find a way to make things work perfectly. They are motivated to keep trying in the face of failure by the empowering and self-esteem boosting sense of mastery they feel when they imagine realizing their idealistic goal. Memories of the rare times when things have gone as they hoped bolster their resolve. On the other hand, the idea of accepting that they can’t make things work perfectly makes them feel disappointed, demoralized, maybe even helpless.
Some mastery seekers believe that if they adopt the right attitude the world will magically conform to their wishes, a belief reinforced by books like “The Secret.” Some believe that they just need to move a bit more quickly to get into perfect sync with the world.
It’s striking how many of my chronically late clients tell me how they “always seem” to get to the platform just as the subway train is pulling out. When I ask them to think about their recent experiences, they sadly acknowledge that most of the time there is no train when they get there. I suspect that they remember the “almost” times and forget the rest because these experiences give them hope that if they just move a bit quicker they will never have to wait for the train again.
Efficiency shouldists, task-value shouldists and mastery seekers don’t like being late—quite the opposite. The problem is that negative emotions triggered by the idea of changing their unrealistic expectations, and/or by positive emotions connected to holding onto them, dominate their thinking.
Developmental Factors Contributing to Planning Issues
Of course, expecting things to be a certain way, the desire for mastery and protecting one’s ego aren’t unique to these people. Why then do they have reactions that are strong enough to prevent them from coming to terms with reality?
Genetically determined temperament probably contributes to shouldism: some children are easy-going from a young age, others are very particular about how things should be. That said, the intensity of their shouldist feelings is also probably the result of childhood experiences.
Some shouldists learned rigid unrealistic expectations of the world from shouldist parents. Identifying with their parents and adopting a similarly rigid attitude gave them a sense of control and superiority.
As children, self-berating efficiency shouldists and idealistic mastery seekers may have not have been patiently encouraged through frustration, helping them feel lovable in spite of their failures. Their parents may have had unrealistic or perfectionistic expectations. They may have been absent. For these chronically late people, acknowledging their limitations and failures is the same as admitting that they are failures. They deny reality so not to feel the intense shame.
Mastery seekers may have been abused or neglected children who avoided sinking into helpless hopeless depression by imagining a perfect life where everything would go smoothly. They may have fled the real world, spending hours in a fantasy world where just imagining things made them happen—setting the stage for magical thinking in their adult lives. (This imaginative strategy came naturally to creatives.) As adults, every failure—every lateness—takes them back to feeling humiliated and helpless. Every success is an elating fulfillment of a dream. So they protect themselves from helplessness by forgetting the failures and trying to repeat the successes.
Other chronically late people are aware that they risk lateness when they plan: Risky Planning.