How To Diagnose What’s Making You Chronically Late

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Do you find yourself apologizing constantly because you’re chronically late? Do your friends not even bother to show up until at least 15 minutes after they told you to arrive, knowing they’ll still need to wait for you?

Have you missed out on opportunities, had work rejected, or had to pay a great deal of money in ticket change fees because you just couldn’t arrive on time? Do you keep saying you want to break this bad habit but never really seem to change?

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Grace Saunders.

If so, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with running their life with clockwork precision. In fact, whole countries of people have this time challenge so one antidote for the stress caused by lack of timeliness is to move to a part of the world where arriving “on time” would be rude. However if you don’t see international relocation as a viable option, figuring out how to overcome this issue can lead to a much happier, successful life for you.

As a time coach and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment I’ve found that the symptom of “lateness” can arise from one or more root causes. To help you with identifying your specific challenges and corresponding solutions, I’ve come up with a list of some of the most common answers to the question, “Why am I ALWAYS late?!” You can experiment with different solution combinations until you find just the right mix for you.

The Challenge: You value something more than being on time. For example, you see wrapping up the work in progress, talking to the person in front of you, or ironing your shirt as more important than punctuality.

The Solution: Look below the surface of the activity to the underlying priority. For “wrapping up work,” the underlying value could be “a sense of completion” or “being able to let go mentally.” For “talking to the person in front of you,” the underlying value could be “respect” or “effectiveness.” For “ironing your shirt,” the underlying value could be “professional appearance” or “confidence.” Once you’ve pinpointed the underlying value, you have three options:

Find a way to satisfy both: This could look like setting an alarm for 30 minutes before you need to stop working so you can wrap up and leave on time; at the start of your conversation with someone, telling them how much time you have to talk before you need to end the conversation; or ironing your shirt the night before so you don’t feel rushed the day of the event.

Elevate the importance of timeliness: Sometimes you can’t uphold your other value and be on time. In those instances, if you want to arrive at the agreed on time, you need to increase the relative importance of being on time above your other values.

Be late—without guilt: If you can’t meet both values and you don’t want to elevate timeliness above your other value. Accept the fact that you will be late. Although this may not make other people happy, you have aligned your time investment with your highest values.

The Challenge: You have unrealistic expectations that everything in life will run smoothly. This can have an impact on many areas of your life, as I outline in the beginning of Chapter 5 of my book.

But to give you one quick example, here’s how someone with unrealistic expectations thinks about his commute: “If I hit every green light, find a close parking spot, and don’t have people in front of me in line, it takes 11 minutes for me to get to the train station, park, buy a ticket, and board the train. Then, once I get off the 41-minute train ride, if I walk really quickly and don’t have to wait for the elevator, it takes me 13 minutes to get from the train to my office. I’ll leave the house at 6:55 a.m. when I have an 8 a.m.” Because there’s no margin, you inevitably end up feeling stressed and apologizing for arriving late most of the time.

The Solution: You need to start thinking about your daily activities in a more realistic fashion. Anticipating that issues can—and will—come up doesn’t make you a pessimist, but instead puts you in touch with reality. Since reality always wins this can move you from constantly feeling like a failure to feeling like a winner.

Here’s an example of how someone with realistic expectations would think about his commute: “I know that it technically only takes a little over an hour for me to get to work. But when I have an 8 a.m. meeting and it’s really essential that I make it to work exactly on time, I give myself one and a half hours. That way, if I’m running a bit late, I hit some traffic, it’s raining, or something else comes up to slow me down, I’m not stressed. I know I’ll be at work on time, and if everything goes smoothly, I can even knock something off my to-do list.” Timeliness has less to do with absolute precision in estimates and more to do with margin.

The Challenge: You hate waiting and see arriving early as a waste of time. This leads you to constantly trying to squeeze in “just one more thing” before you head out the door. You get agitated and impatient if you could have checked something more off your to-do list and instead you’re standing around waiting for someone or something.

The Solution: In this scenario, you put a high priority on the value that you could extract from each minute. So the solution lies in having ideas for what you could do with any extra time that you have before something starts. This could include answering e-mail, returning texts, reading a blog post, calling a friend, thinking about a complex problem, or even meditating. The activity doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you need to feel comfortable with the fact that any minutes of waiting can be well spent on an activity you find meaningful. This lowers the resistance to giving yourself enough time to arrive on time.

The Challenge: You thrive on adrenaline. One of the ways you ensure a rush in your everyday life is by constantly testing the limits of how late you can start getting ready and still be on time—or at least not really screw something up. You’re supposed to head out the door in five minutes to catch a cab to then get on a flight? That must mean that it’s almost time to jump in the shower.

The Solution: You probably can’t change the fact that you are an adrenaline junkie, but what you can do is to redefine the challenge. For example, you could challenge yourself to try to get somewhere as fast as possible. If you arrive there early, you get a reward that you ONLY give yourself if you arrive early, like playing a game on your phone. The earlier you get there, the more time you have to play. If you arrive on-time or late, no playtime for you.

The Challenge: Sometimes wanting to leave on time doesn’t cause you issues, it’s the fact that you’ve forgotten to take into account prep so when the time comes, you aren’t ready. Maybe you can’t find your keys, you don’t know how to get to where you’re going, or you forgot to look through material in advance. This means you start scrambling to pull everything together when you should head out the door.

The Solution: At least one day in advance, think through what you need to complete so that you can leave on-time the next day. This may be as simple as making sure you put your keys on the key holder and pack your lunch so you can grab the two items quickly as you head to work. But when you have a more complex situation like a job interview or a party, you’ll need to think through these kind of items:

  • What do I want to wear? Are those clothes cleaned, and if necessary, ironed?
  • When is the meeting?
  • Do I need to confirm the time, place, and contact info in case of unexpected circumstances?
  • Where is the event?
  • How will I get there?
  • If I’m driving, do I need to fill up with gas? Do I know where to park?
  • If I’m taking public transport, what’s the timetable? Do I need cash?
  • When do I need to leave?
  • When do I need to start getting ready?
  • Do I need to prep anything in advance like looking over a proposal, making an agenda, or reviewing someone’s LinkedIn profile?
  • Do I need to bring anything special like food or a gift?
  • If I have it, where is it?
  • If I don’t have it, when will I buy it?
  • Do I need to make any special arrangements like asking my neighbor to take out my dog after work?

The Challenge: You resent the fact that you need to do a certain activities so you show your resistance by being late. Either consciously—or at least subconsciously—you feel like if you’re getting forced to do something you find annoying or stupid that the other people involved should feel some of your discomfort.

The Solution: In another Lifehacker article, I took an in-depth look at how to tame your inner routine rebel so you can look there for more ideas. But the first step in this situation is to give yourself a sense of personal ownership. This could happen through admitting to yourself and others that you really don’t want to attend a certain meeting or activity and seeing if you cannot go. If that’s not an option, try to find a reason why you personally want to do whatever it is that you’re doing. This could relate to the fact that you want to uphold your professional reputation, or you want to be a good friend. Whatever the reason, it should be something that you find personally motivating and that takes you out of feeling like a victim.

The Challenge: You tend to completely lose track of time so you forget that you need to start getting ready to go somewhere or that you even have an appointment.

The Solution: Set reminders in such a way that they will come to you where and when you need them. That could mean having a pop-up on your computer 10 minutes before the start of a meeting or having task reminders sent as text messages or setting alarms on your phone. The exact technique you use isn’t as important as the fact that for every time-bound activity you should have a reminder set in a place where you will see or hear it at the right time.

The Challenge: You follow everything above and would be on time if it depended just on you. But you have people around you who constantly make you late because they aren’t ready when you need to leave and/or they don’t respect the boundaries that you need in place so that you can leave on time.

The Solution: If you have a situation where you find yourself constantly waiting on a late friend or family member, you have a few choices: If accommodating their naturally late style is more important to you than arriving on time, you can just roll with the situation and accept that’s the way it will be. If it’s a problem that you’re always running late and you must leave at the same time, try to work with them on addressing the above challenges and finding solutions that work. If it’s a problem you’re running late and it’s possible for you to travel separately, let them know that you would be happy to go together. However, if they aren’t ready by a certain time, you will leave without them.

If this is a people issue related to boundaries, such as meetings running long or someone stopping you to talk as you head out the door, follow these three steps: If you literally have no time, say something like, “I would love to talk to you/stay at this meeting, but I need to leave right now. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow morning.” If you just have a few minutes, set the expectation at the outset, “I have just three minutes to talk. If that’s enough time, tell me what’s happening. If not, let’s catch up tomorrow.”

Keep your word and leave when you said you needed to leave. With the right strategies, you can go from late to on time—every time (or at least most of the time!)





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