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January 10, 2019

What Makes You Late?

Faye Bradshaw

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©© GettyImages/poba

"It was the traffic." "I missed a train." "It was my partner's fault." We all run late occasionally, but when it happens often, it becomes a problem – not just for you, but for those who rely on you, too. It's likely time to reassess how much control you had over those situations.

I'm a recovered serial late-arriver. What was a running joke at university became a serious issue at work. It felt awful: I'd set a dozen alarms with the most horrible ringtone I could find on my phone, but I would always end up late out of bed, skipping breakfast, panicking and snowballing through every task. It felt like the whole universe was working against me. I'd finally fluster out the door however-many minutes late, ashamed and embarrassed, despite what I’d tell myself were my best efforts. Then I'd beat myself up during the car journey, dreading my arrival and the excuse I'd have to give to a room full of rolling eyes.

This might sound familiar. Punctually challenged people are often painfully aware of how their actions harm their relationships, careers and reputations. For me, cutting remarks evolved into a stern talking-to from a manager. But I'm glad. It made me step back and see my toxic habits for what they were.

So, what counts as "late"? In Morocco, you could be "on time" if you show up within two hours of an appointment, or even on the same day. In Switzerland, "on time" is actually considered late. You're expected to be 30 minutes late in Greece. But in the U.S. and U.K. – certainly in business – arriving five to 10 minutes before an appointment is generally considered polite. It shows those around you that you're prepared and efficient.

Consider the Consequences

Some people are always early or "on the dot," while others are late for everything: starting and leaving work, appointments, meetings, parties, trains, pre-booked taxis, flights, lunches, even taking medication. Usually, it's by an infuriating five, 10 or 15 minutes – not so late that they miss the appointment entirely, but late enough to irritate anyone who's been left waiting.

The fact is, people who consistently arrive late appear not only disorganized and unreliable but also rude, unintelligent and inconsiderate. That wasn't the "real me," but my behavior told people otherwise. We all know what it's like to be on the receiving end of such behavior – whether it's coming from a friend, partner, colleague, or the dentist. It tells you that the person thinks their time is more valuable than yours.

Someone like this can be a frustrating presence at work, always causing unnecessary stress and pressure. We've likely all worked with someone who was late to everything – rushing, or worse, breezing in with a coffee cup and sandwich that they clearly stopped for while you were drumming your fingers. Perhaps not showing up at all, or forever missing things and never giving the impression that they actually care.

CareerBuilder's January 2017 survey of more than 2,600 HR managers and 3,400 workers in the U.S. found that 29 percent of employees were late at least once a month. If you're one of them, it could mean saying goodbye to that promotion – the survey revealed that 53 percent of managers expect employees to be on time every day, and that 41 percent have fired someone for being late. In many industries, punctuality is important for the sake of operational efficiency. All of those "five minutes" add up and cost a company money.

Ask Yourself: "Why Am I Late?"

According to the CareerBuilder survey, most lateness is down to traffic (49 percent), oversleeping (32 percent), bad weather (26 percent), being too tired to get out of bed (25 percent), and procrastination (17 percent). But there could be more to it. Are you a dreamer who thinks having a shower, making breakfast, riding the elevator, and checking out of a hotel takes five minutes? Or did you just forget, and it's a case of self-discipline?

There's always the temptation to do "just one more thing" before you leave. But Jeff Conte, a researcher at San Diego State University, found that multitaskers were late to work more often – at least in the small sample that he studied. This is because trying to do everything at once makes it harder to keep track of what you're doing. He also proposed that different personality types actually feel time pass differently. He found that laid-back "type B" personalities perceived a minute to pass in 77 seconds, compared to highly strung "type A" personalities who felt it pass in 58 seconds.

Or perhaps you're a perfectionist. Does a lack of self-esteem and perspective prevent you from finishing a task? Or are you a crisis-maker who loves the thrill of being rushed and needs to learn to act, not react? Could it be a passive-aggressive form of protest? Or your subconscious telling you that you don't really want to be there? Maybe it's down to a more serious underlying problem that needs addressing, such as anxiety or depression. Those suffering from poor mental health have a tendency to avoid triggering situations and to experience low levels of energy and motivation.

Break Your Bad Habits

It's important to identify and tackle the cause of any negative behavior. Ensure you approach the issue in a positive way. Criticizing yourself won't fix the problem, and just wishing to change isn't enough.

But for years that's as far as I got. After countless "wrist slaps," my manager finally pulled me aside and explained in a firm but empathic manner that I was letting myself down. It really hit home. If only I had been able to change my unhelpful thought processes sooner, I could have saved myself the embarrassment.

Some people are just plain thoughtless. But, a lot of the time, it's nothing to do with personality, motivation or intent; it's simply a bad habit that can be fixed with a little effort and attention to your routine. And that's exactly what I did.

7 Top Tips to Avoid Lateness

1. Invest in a watch. Time your daily and weekly routines – you will be surprised at how long it all takes.

2. For every task, think carefully and visualize who you'll help or what you'll gain by being on time. This can counter any drive to rebel against constraints or expectations, or the fear of losing out in some other way.

3. Set alarms and reminders, and limit distractions. Try to schedule appointments to avoid peak times. Booking important meetings for 9 a.m. might seem like a good idea, but it could be a recipe for disaster if you get stuck in traffic. Plan to arrive 10-15 minutes early, and bring a book or podcast to make the most of that bonus time.

4. Don't squeeze in "one more thing" before that appointment. And don't leave little tasks like getting gas or cash until the last minute.

5. Don't arrive too early, either. If others show up on time to find you at the end of a cup of coffee, you risk making them feel anxious.

6. Plan for tomorrow the night before. Prepare breakfast and lunch, lay out your clothes, and pack your bags. Work out how long each task will take by breaking it down into steps, so you don't underestimate it. Add contingencies and buffers.

7. Prioritize sleep. Oversleeping is one of the most common causes of being late. But getting enough sleep is essential to working productively and efficiently.

Positive Steps

Saying sorry is no good if everybody – including you – knows you're just going to do it again next week. You don't need to be the person who arrives five hours early for a flight (like my beloved mom on every childhood holiday, leaving time for all but an extraterrestrial invasion). Overcompensating like this can actually cause you to waste your time. But do aim to be reliable and punctual.

Identify the cause of constant lateness, address it, and take positive steps – or show positive encouragement – to adjust that behavior. Arriving slightly early, or on time, demonstrates that you value your own time and other people's. It also reduces unnecessary stress. When I previously saw my colleagues' respect for me begin to slip, I also noticed their appreciation when I changed my ways. I now have time to collect my thoughts and prepare. And I feel more confident and relaxed about any task I am facing.

Are you always running late? Or, how do you deal with a co-worker who is chronically late? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

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2 comments on “What Makes You Late?”

  1. I am ALWAYS late for basically everything. I always oversleep no matter how many alarms I set. I turn them off -- most of the time without even knowing it. I have taken to wearing my hair up most days for work simply because I don't have time to curl it. I hate wasting time and am constantly trying to fit in "one more thing/errand" just like the article says above. I feel like I've tried everything and am still stuck in this terrible habit!

    1. Thanks for sharing Emily and the fact that you seem to want to change is the first step towards actually making those changes. One trick I have used regarding setting alarms is to put the alarm somewhere far from the bed so I have to get out of bed to turn it off. Then, once up, I get on with what I need to do.

      Like any habit, I encourage you to take small steps and acknowledge the progress you are making. The ideas in the article might help as well as planning you time ideally the night before to do all that you want to do. Yet, allowing yourself ample time between things so you are not late. In other words, be ok with not filling every second of every minute of every day and trying to fit in 'one more thing'.

      How does all that sound?

      Mind Tools Team

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