Can You Cure Chronic Lateness?

In a Wait But Why analysis of people who are habitually late—whether it’s to work, social engagements, or major appointments—Tim Urban concludes that some members of this group, including himself, could be deemed Chronically Late Insane People (CLIP). As classified by Urban, these individuals are unfailingly late to pretty much everything, and quite simply, irrational in how they view time. While others have posited that such behavior is driven by optimism (including the unshakeable belief that a 25-minute commute will only take 10 minutes, if everything goes right), Urban calls it for what it is: insanity. And a common one at that. In a 2006 survey, 15 to 20 percent of people identified as “consistently late.”

As a self-identified CLIP, I’m all too familiar with the phenomenon he describes: the warped hope that Google Maps could somehow be mistaken about travel time, the loose usage of the term “en route,” and a genuine feeling of self-loathing about this behavior. Yet, despite knowing that it’s wrong and feeling bad about it, I and many others struggle to improve.

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But, there may be hope for late folks, after all. According to several psychologists and experts, it is possible to change. While there may not be a “cure” for this behavior—there is a way to manage it.

* * *

Why is chronic lateness such a trap? Many people who are regularly late have dealt with this issue for years, if not the majority of their adult lives. Part of the reason thwarting this behavior is so tough is because it has the same kind of intractable stickiness as other recurring habits, like eating junk food or overspending. These negative behaviors can become part of a person’s ingrained routine, and may even form mental pathways in the brain that get strengthened over and over again, every time an individual ventures down this route.

As a result, punctuality can’t be achieved overnight, but it can be steadily cultivated over time. Linda Sapadin, a psychologist who specializes in time management and the author of How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age, frequently sees this trend in her patients.

“You literally have to train your mind to approach things differently than its current default way of thinking.”

“Some people comply right away and most people don’t,” she notes, “For most people, habits take time to break. It’s not only about breaking this pattern, it’s also about building another one.” This process will take “weeks and months, not days,” says Guy Winch, a psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid. In order to overcome lateness, “You literally have to train your mind to approach things differently than its current default way of thinking—so you have to be ready to make that investment.”

Starre Vartan, a small business owner and freelance writer based in California, was 20-40 minutes late to everything—from dates with her partner to editing meetings, a habit she’d had on and off ever since her catering job in high school. “I hated it about myself,” she says, “Because I felt like it disrespected other people’s time.” Yet even after she acknowledged the issue, Vartan continued to feel caught in a perpetual cycle of tardiness. She would often become so engrossed in a task, she’d forget when it was time to leave. “That is the feeling I had for a long time,” she says. Once she made a decisive plan, it took 2-3 months before she confidently felt like she could manage the habit.

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“I felt like a huge jerk, I felt irresponsible, I felt like I hadn’t mastered a part of being an adult,” she says. Sarah Elizabeth Richards, a health and science journalist who started paying more attention to her tendency for lateness, after writing an article about it for Elle, experienced similar emotions. “I was really ashamed about it,” she says, “How come you can’t do something that everyone else can do?”

Richards recalls specific instances that drew her attention to the problem like a hike she missed because she arrived after it had already begun. “I remember thinking you wrecked the day for yourself,” she says, “I would get to events in the middle and always feel like I was missing out on things.”

She also experienced anxiety and stress on her commutes. “You are always feeling that frenzied energy of running around and I just got tired of that,” Richard says, “A friend once commented, there’s so much energy that goes into rushing and then feeling bad after, which you could channel into being on time.”

Vartan began experiencing life changes that made her think seriously about tackling the issue. She decided to open her own business, which held her increasingly accountable for meetings and tasks. Her partner, who was reliably on-time, would often express his frustration.

According to Rashelle Isip, an organization coach, reasons like these push people to begin addressing their lateness. For some, it’s a gradual build-up of repeated instances when they’ve been called out for this behavior, or missed moments and travel arrangements. For others, there’s a point when major changes are taking place in their life and being late is no longer sustainable. These shifts can include milestones like having a child, getting a promotion, or moving somewhere new and striving to cultivate a fresh reputation.

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“For the most part, people take action to deal with chronic lateness only once it’s about to cost them a heavy price or already has,” says Winch, “They might have missed a crucial flight, received a final warning from their superior at work or been confronted by a spouse who just can’t take it anymore … something big enough has to happen to break their denial about their lateness being manageable and tolerable (by others).”

Without the added accountability from her business and partner, Vartan wonders if she would have been as determined to adjust. Friends and family may grumble, but they always seem to forgive their late compatriots. Even then, there are consequences. “With certain people, I was always wondering if they had a bad impression of me,” says Richards.

A dreamer often underestimates travel time or attempts to fit many tasks into an unrealistic window.

Winch agrees that much of the consequence of lateness goes unsaid. “You’re not only wasting a person’s time, you’re aggravating them in the process,” he says, “Will all of them say that to you? No, and certainly not every time. But they will feel it.”

While it can be tougher to remain motivated without punishments, real or imagined, Sapadin notes that focusing on the positive gains of being on time can serve as a powerful incentive. “Very often people who are late come into a room and mumble an apology. One of the advantages would be that you don’t have to mumble an apology,” she says, “You don’t have to go to a meeting sweating or feeling rushed.”

* * *

Identifying the reasons that people are late is one of the first steps to concretely changing the behavior, says Sapadin. Based on her research, she has pinpointed four kinds of personalities, which can be susceptible to lateness. Many have grappled with this quandary since childhood, but some have developed it later on in life when they had less external support and structure in their daily activities. An individual whose parents may have once reminded them to get to school on time might struggle when they enter the working world, for example.  

The first of Sapadin’s types is the perfectionist—who is late because he or she won’t leave the house until everything from their appearance to the project they’re presenting is as close as it can be to flawless. The second is the crisis maker, who thrives off the pressure and adrenaline rush of a time constraint in order to be productive. The third, the defier, is late as a means of rebelling against existing societal constructs or a broader authority telling him or her what to do. And the last is the dreamer, someone who lives in a fantasy world of their own creation and thinks that time might just work differently for them than it does for anyone else. A dreamer often underestimates travel time or attempts to fit many tasks into an unrealistic window. (Many people possess a combination of these personalities.)

Depending on the reasons behind someone’s lateness, Sapadin tailors her guidance—she would advise a perfectionist to worry less about every last detail, for example, a crisis maker to seek out other sources of adrenaline (like athletic activities), a defier to act rather than react to a situation, and a dreamer to be more specific about expectations and time measurement.

Once the cause of a person’s lateness has been determined, fixing it requires targeting specific places in their schedule. Isip has her clients identify “pain points” in their day when they often run late and pick one that they can focus on, like an upcoming meeting or coffee date. Vartan did a similar exercise on her own—once she realized that her understanding of time was skewed, she began timing the morning trip to her editing job and collecting data. After she had the numbers, she noted that if her commute was 7-8 minutes, she would need to add buffer time and give herself about 12 minutes to complete it. On top of that, she set a physical alarm that reminded her to leave 13-14 minutes before she needed to be at work.

Isip recommends starting with a small assignment and once that has been successfully completed, repeating it several times before applying the strategy to larger goals. “It’s a step by step, day by day process to help people become more conscious of their actions,” she says.

After a couple weeks of arriving to her editing job on time, Vartan began using the same method of timing and planning for other, longer trips like a commute from Connecticut into New York City. After about one month of reinforcing a new habit, the impact of the old one begins to fade, says Sapadin, “As you build new habits, the old habits go down.”

Being conscious of specific personal weaknesses is also important for this process, notes Winch. Pressing snooze, for example, is an easy way to wind up running late in the mornings, and can become the default action, especially when a person is groggy and experiencing sleep inertia—a state when the mind can operate more on autopilot because it isn’t fully awake yet. Combatting such behaviors requires extra mindfulness, he says, “Any habit change is possible if the person is serious enough and diligent enough about putting in the work to make it stick.” With a strict repetition of a regimen, the goal is that punctuality will become the new default.

That’s not to say that once people start showing up to places on time, that they don’t fall back into their previous ways. “The important thing is not to think of yourself as a failure,” says Sapadin. “There’s always the next time—how can we strengthen the commitment, the can-do habit, so there’s a larger probability you’ll stick with it.”

“Sometimes, it’s still a little weird. If it’s an event and I get there when all the on-time people get there,” she says, laughing, “I’m like these are not my people.”

Keeping their lateness in check is an ongoing process for both Vartan and Richards. “It’s daily management in the same way that making food choices is a daily thing,” says Richards. But, she says, being late no longer feels the same as it once did. “It’s like when you’re eating better, and you go back to eating junk food, it just makes you feel so bad.”

And some self-compassion is required. “I thought of curing my lateness as a 90 percent thing,” says Vartan, “Like, 10 percent of the time, I'm not going to be successful, like anything else. If I hew to a ‘perfect’ standard, I fail, then get discouraged and quit.”

Today, they’re both on time, more often than not, and it’s changed the way they view their daily lives. Vartan now has the luxury of being able to get a coffee on her way to work, and arrive at parties when there’s still food. Her partner also feels more respected. “Sometimes, it’s still a little weird. If it’s an event and I get there when all the on-time people get there,” she says, laughing, “I’m like these are not my people.”

For Richards, managing this habit has changed the way that she feels about herself, and how others perceive her. “When you're late, people think you don’t care when it’s really the opposite,” she says, “Now that I’ve gotten better, I’m not constantly fighting myself, and feeling a horrible shame about it.”

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This article was originally published on The Atlantic.