Are you always late? Here’s how to be on time

<span>In 2006, 15-20% of Americans said they were ‘consistently late’, according to ABC News.</span><span>Photograph: Dag Sundberg/Getty Images</span>
In 2006, 15-20% of Americans said they were ‘consistently late’, according to ABC News.Photograph: Dag Sundberg/Getty Images

I am arguably the worst kind of late. I am never very late – the kind so egregious it almost demands a begrudging respect, as if the tardy party is an otherworldly spirit who cannot be expected to adhere to earthly conceptions of time.

My lateness is less bold, more tedious. I am perpetually running 10 to 15 minutes behind, so even when I am on time, I arrive frazzled and on edge. A few weeks ago, sprinting towards a train that was about to pull away from the station, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to live this way.

It’s hard to say how many people are regularly late. There are not many large-scale surveys of lateness, and tardiness can depend on context: some may manage their professional time well but struggle to be punctual in their personal life, or vice versa. And while showing up 15 minutes late to a meeting is generally frowned upon, the Emily Post Institute suggests that there is a 20-minute grace period when it comes to parties.

Still, it seems like I’m in good company. There haven’t been any major surveys recently, but in 2006, 15-20% of Americans said they were “consistently late”, according to ABC News. And a 2017 survey found that nearly 30% of Americans arrive late to work each day.

Consistent lateness can lead to missed meetings, appointments and travel, but it can also put a strain on relationships. Dr Fuschia Sirois, a professor of health and social psychology at Durham University, explains that delays can be interpreted by others as disrespectful. “That’s really the downside of lateness, even if there was no harm intended,” she says. “If other people are waiting to meet you, they can feel like they don’t matter.”

I asked experts why people (OK, me) are late in the first place, and what they can do to change it.

Why are some people chronically late?

Experts say there are a huge number of reasons why people might be late.

Upbringing: Sade Kelly, a time management coach, says many of her clients either grew up around people who were often late, and therefore developed a lax approach to time, or grew up around people who were overwhelmingly time-conscious. “If the people in your environment were so on time that you felt restricted and anxious, you want to rebel,” she says.


How we approach time: another factor is our individual relationship to time. Sirois explains that people have different “time orientations”. Some are future oriented, or inclined to make decisions based on future plans. This group tends not to be late, Sirois says. Others are more present oriented, and generally make decisions based on what they need in the moment. This group has a greater tendency toward lateness, because they focus less on what’s next. Still others are past oriented, and make their decisions based on past experiences.

Although time orientations are seen as fairly stable, Sirois says they’re also fluid; ideally, one will shift through all three. “Flexible time perspective is considered the healthiest,” she says.

For example, if you are catching up with a friend before an appointment, ideally you would be fully present during your conversation, then orient to the future when it’s time to leave, at which point you could draw on your past experiences to determine the quickest way to travel across town.

Overscheduling: sometimes, people simply have too much on their plate. As Dr Emily Waldum, an adjunct professor of psychology at Campbell University, explains, when we try to juggle too many things at once, certain tasks get delayed or dropped. “We only have a limited amount of attention. If we are multi-tasking day and night, the best-laid plans can fail simply because we don’t have enough attentional resources left to carry them out successfully,” Waldum says.

Aversion: In some cases, people just don’t want to do the task. A client of Kelly’s was consistently late to the same meeting. When Kelly asked him about it, he admitted that he didn’t need to be there, and didn’t want to go. In such cases, Kelly says to review the commitment “and save yourself time, mental space and energy”.

Are lateness and procrastination different?

Aversion can also lead to procrastination. It’s tempting to lump together disorganization and procrastination, as they can both result in lateness. But experts say the root causes of the two issues are actually quite different.

“Time management has very little to do with procrastination,” Sirois says. “[Procrastination] has more to do with mood management.”

If you are procrastinating on a project or on leaving for a meeting, Sirois says it’s important to identify what feelings are coming up. “It can be an avoidant strategy,” she explains. “There’s something about doing that task or finishing that task that is threatening to us. It might be that we’re worried that it’s not going to be good enough, or it’s not going to please somebody.”

If one isn’t able to regulate their mood, Sirois says no amount of time management can make up for that.

How can people learn to be on time?

Eager to fix my own lateness issue, I asked Kelly why it was so hard for some people to be on time.

“I don’t actually believe it’s hard,” she said. “I believe it’s a developed habit that people can work to overcome.” (I feel disquietingly humbled.)

Kelly likes to think of time management as a puzzle, with one’s tasks and activities being the pieces. One way to put together this puzzle is to do what she calls a brain dump. “What are all the things on your mind?” she prompts. “What are all the things you’re overwhelmed by?”

Once this is done, prioritize. Consider whether tasks are important, meaning they advance your personal goals; urgent, meaning they have a hard deadline and need to happen in the next week or so; or both. “A lot of times, once we’ve gone through what’s important and what’s urgent, the list starts to shrink,” she says. From there, it’s easier to identify what needs to happen in the next day, week or month, and figure out how much time each task will take.

It’s important to be realistic about this last step, Kelly says. She mentions a friend who thought it only took 15 to 20 minutes to get ready, but when she timed it, she realized it took an hour and a half. “You’d be amazed at the things that you think take a short amount of time, but actually take a really long time,” she says.

Also, identify why you’re late. When I tell Kelly about my tendency to frantically tidy my apartment right when I am supposed to be walking out the door, she suggests that this is an avoidant tendency, and that I am practicing something she calls “productive procrastination”. And she was right – it occurred to me that I was folding and refolding blankets in an anxious attempt to delay socializing.

Regardless of your tendencies, Sirois says it’s important to be gentle with yourself. “It’s a very human thing to struggle with negative feelings about something that pushes you to be late,” says Sirois. “Rather than feeling like you’re the worst person in the world for doing that, face up to your emotions and try not to let them consume you.”