How not to be late

Last week I spoke with Jennifer Liu at LearnVest about the topic of promptness. Specifically, Jennifer's lack of punctuality. Why was she late everywhere? What could she do about it?

I, as a classic "upholder," often get places early. I can tell when I'm dealing with someone like me because our scheduled 3 p.m. coffee can generally commence by 2:50 p.m. Once upon a time, I assumed that people who were chronically late were just rude. They valued their time more than other people's time, and so they were willing to make them wait, so they didn't have to.

This is probably the case with some anti-social sorts. But normal, nice late people like Jennifer hate being late. They hate the anxiety and the rushing. So what's going on?

Over at LearnVest, Jennifer writes about a few insights and strategies we discussed. You can read her (quite enjoyable!) article here.

A few take-aways: Late people have no idea how long things actually take. Many have a picture in their minds of how long a recurring event (like a commute) takes, but this picture is informed by the one day when absolutely everything went right. In Jennifer's mind, it took 20 minutes to get ready (because it did one morning) and 20 minutes on the subway to get to work (which happened one morning when apparently no one else in NYC was commuting). Normally, it takes a lot longer. But she'd find herself thinking, if she had more than 40 minutes before her first thing at work, hey, I can hit snooze, or take my time, because I don't need to leave yet!

Needless to say, she was usually late.

Late people tend to be very optimistic. They think they can take care of one more thing, and it will somehow all just fit. Maybe I can just empty the dishwasher before I go! It'll just take a minute! (It doesn't. It takes 5-7 minutes.)

Late people are also often people-pleasers. If someone takes more time than he or she asked for, the chronically late person doesn't feel comfortable ending things.

Being optimistic and being focused on the person in front of you aren't bad things on their own, but they can cause problems with time. I had Jennifer look at her time for a few days. I had her think about her anxiety, and whether emptying the dishwasher was higher up the priority list than making a friend happy. I suggested setting a phone or watch alarm when talking with people when she needed to be somewhere afterwards, so it would be the alarm saying it was time to go, not her. And then there's this old standby: just add 15 minutes to everything (The Frugal Girl has a good post on this). If you're chronically late, you clearly have no idea how much time it takes to do things, so just add 15 minutes. Maybe sometimes you'll be a little less late, and some times you'll be early, but it should do the trick much of the time.

She tried some of this and was actually a few minutes early to meet a friend to see a movie!

Are you generally early, on time, or late? Have you changed from one to the other? I've actually gotten more comfortable with getting to the airport with less time to spare.

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10 Responses to How not to be late


  1. Diana says:

    I used to be a very early person (I got a “most likely to be early” superlative in college) but now…I’m almost chronically late. I definitely fall victim to the “I just want to get one more thing done” and then underestimating how much time it’ll take and being late. Definitely something I need to work on! Maybe I’ll start with the 15 minute plan!

  2. DvStudent says:

    I’ve always been very punctual, probably due to a summer working in Switzerland, where people do set alarms and clocks everywhere to make sure they’re on time! It’s a habit I’m so glad to have.

    My punctuality actually was a double edged sword once in grad school. The bus to campus from my doctor’s appointment was running late, so I was 5 minutes late to a regular meeting with one of our faculty. She was so panicked something had happened to me that she nearly called campus police!

    • @DVStudent- I could see that happening with someone who was always punctual and conscientious. While I don’t know the exact circumstances of what happened, I was thinking of that with the young WSJ writer who died suddenly — they found him because he didn’t show up at work one day and his editor called the police. I can imagine that there are some employees for whom a one-day absence would not immediately cause that to happen.

  3. Kim says:

    I always thought the “early” people were the people- pleasers.
    I’m always, always prompt and, other than wanting to avoid rush-stress, I’m horrified at the idea that I’ve kept someone waiting on me!

  4. Gisela says:

    I’m usually the on-time type. The 15-minute trick (although it’s sometimes more or less than 15, depending on the task) is something I’ve always done.

    I think it’s also important to keep in mind that changing life circumstances can sometimes change how long things take and to be willing to go with it. When my son started daycare at 6 1/2 months, it only took me about fifteen minutes to get him ready to go out the door since all I had to do was change his diaper, dress him, and put him in the stroller (he was happy to wait until we got to the daycare to get a bottle). His morning routine got a few minutes longer when we added toothbrushing and hair combing. Now at nearly 2 1/2, we’ve added (attempted) potty time, and he likes to insist that several of his toys “brush their teeth” as well. Occasionally he’ll also be resistant to getting up, or he’ll throw in a tantrum. It now takes at least 30 minutes to get him ready, which means I need to budget for 45 minutes and get out of bed that much earlier myself.

    • @Gisela- yes, things definitely change in different phases. Though I’ve found the “getting ready with kids” activity has some element of the task expanding to fill the time available. 45 minutes I can see. Two hours not so much — then there’s an opportunity for playing and quality time if people have that much space available, but often everyone’s so focused on getting out the door that it doesn’t really happen.

  5. Jennie says:

    This was a timely post. (Pun intended) We have all new administration and while I am rarely truly late, our new manager is taking any and all flexibility away. Mornings are when I have the least help childcare wise and I’m calling in reinforcements!

  6. ARC says:

    I had never made the connection between my inability to estimate how long something takes and my lateness 🙂 I’m always trying to squeeze in “just one more thing” before an appointment. I do have one friend who has publicly stated that she finds lateness to be super disrespectful so I am always early to meet her 😀 9 times out of 10 she’s already there, even when I’m 10 min early but I try not to feel bad about that…

    • @ARC – some people definitely care more than others. Of course, if you can be there early for the early friend, your other friends might eventually wonder why she gets the special treatment!

  7. Yes, I call it being a time optimist instead of a realist 🙂

    I wrote a post here and I see I linked to your book in it.
    http://www.marciafrancois.com/blog/2015/10/28/are-you-a-time-optimist-2/

    I recently tracked my time to get to Sat morning gym class and noticed that I hadn’t factored in time to find parking and walk into the gym. Once I added 5 minutes for that part, I’m on time again.

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