I have a friend I’ll call Claudia. She’s got a job in a small-but-growing company; she’s smart, self-aware — and chronically late. The agreed-upon time for any get-together with her is a sort of white lie. She always arrives flustered and apologetic, explaining (again), “I’m running behind today.”
I’m usually OK with what I consider a rather endearing trait in Claudia. For her, though, lateness is an issue, especially at work. “There are people at my job for whom punctuality is a sign of respect,” she says, “and I think those people feel that I’m kind of flipping them off.”
Claudia does have a touch of defiance in her character. But she is also a major promoter of orderly and businesslike procedure in her company.
“Sometimes when I’m running late, I feel like a total screwup,” she explains. “Other times I rationalize that I’m rebelling, that I’m living beyond the nine-to-five. Either way, I’m in a state of low-grade anxiety.”
Why We’re Late
Julie Morgenstern, productivity expert and author of Time Management from the Inside Out, believes that chronic lateness generally comes in two flavors. First, there are people who are late by differing amounts of time; for them, time management is primarily a technical issue. Second are those who are chronically late, but always by the same amount of time; for them, lateness is an emotional matter.
Those with technical difficulties frequently have trouble saying no to people taking up their time. They’re especially prone to “gotta do one more thing” syndrome, in part because they are often unclear about how much time different tasks require.
“The best time managers are very conscious of how long things take,” Morgenstern says. “Time realism, as opposed to time optimism, is the gateway skill to good time management.”
Those who are routinely late by the same amount of time suffer more from a fear of downtime. They “are actually quite good at time management,” Morgenstern says with a laugh, “as evidenced by the fact that they always show up exactly five or 10 minutes late, even though their behavior is usually not conscious. They tend to be uncomfortable with waiting, and being late ensures that they’ll never have any downtime.”
I asked Claudia to speculate on what made her late.
“There’s a domino effect,” she explains. “My fiancé, a night owl, likes me to stay up with him. But I suffer with only a few hours’ sleep, so I try to sleep in. Then I show up late for work, which causes me to show up late for everything else. I get wrapped up in work tasks and in conversations. Then I glance at my watch and always have to run.”
Suspecting that her problems were on the technical side, I gave Claudia a copy of Morgenstern’s book and invited her to see if she recognized herself.
Morgenstern offers the acronym WADE for the process of getting better at organizing your time:
- Write down your to-dos for a day in one reliable place, like a planner.
- Add up the time everything will require, after estimating how long you need for each individual item.
- Decide and prioritize what you will actually do, if you have realized there isn’t enough time to get everything done.
- Execute, or as Morgenstern puts it, “Put your plan into action without being hindered by procrastination or perfectionism.”
These steps are useful for both types of late people, but for the chronic “technical” latenik, it’s particularly important to develop time-estimating skills, reduce interruptions, and learn to say no to commitments.
To become better at time estimation, Morgenstern recommends creating a list with two columns: one for your estimate of how long you think commitments will require, the other to note how long they actually took.
“Do you see a pattern?” she asks. “Are there certain types of tasks you find harder to judge than others? Are there some that went much more quickly than you thought they would?” Keeping up this comparison list for a month or so will go a long way toward improving your accurate assessment of time.
When it comes to dealing with interruptions, Morgenstern emphasizes that “most crises aren’t crises.” Most things can wait.
“When people come to you with so-called urgent demands,” she says, “the very first thing to do is to consider what is at stake if you don’t respond immediately. Only 20 percent of interruptions are true emergencies.”
She also recommends building time for interruptions into your schedule, paying special attention to “hidden” needs like driving and preparation time.
Learning to say no can be the task of a lifetime, but Morgenstern reminds us that we are the only ones who really understand our own time needs, and we all have the right to decline a request. She recommends rehearsing a phrase like, “I’m sorry, but I have other commitments.”
“Saying no doesn’t mean you need to be abrupt or rude,” she points out. “You can get the message across in a perfectly considerate way.”
When I checked in with Claudia, I found that many of Morgenstern’s suggestions had struck a chord. “I rarely plan my time,” she notes, “so I found the comparison of estimated time with the real amount of time things take to be illuminating.”
The insights about people-pleasing also resonated for her. “When I tell you I’ll meet you in 20 minutes,” she says, “I always forget that I have to get gas or find a parking place and then walk from my car to the coffee shop. So it’s really going to take me 40 minutes. But if I tell you that, it might make you unhappy!”
Trouble saying no and estimating time accurately certainly have psychological components. Still, according to Morgenstern, people like Claudia are usually so sick of lateness that better time-management habits can override whatever resistance they might have.
The Pleasure of Being Early
Individuals who are precisely late by the same number of minutes each time won’t become any more punctual until they first address their anxiety about waiting and downtime.
“For these people, not doing something is what brings up the anxiety,” Morgenstern says. She recommends that for three days these types force themselves to arrive early to commitments. Notice the anxiety, she says, but then “soothe yourself with some highly absorbing and pleasant task.” Bring a good book and read a few pages, return a phone call, write a thank-you note.
This tactic can override the feeling that waiting is a waste of time by offering a pleasing incentive to be early. If those few extra minutes feel like a reward, or they allow you to get something done, anxiety about waiting may all but disappear.
Claudia, on the other hand, is entirely free of downtime anxiety. In fact, she thoroughly enjoys being early on the rare occasions when she is. She’s taking Morgenstern-inspired steps toward an on-time life, beginning with some simple upfront time planning. She’s optimistic that she can defeat her time optimism — given time.