How to Adult: Being On Time

First in a series on project managing life by Karen Geier

Learn it, Live it, Love it

I had zero choice growing up as to whether I would learn to be punctual. Both of my parents are militarily precise on arriving early.

Part of this comes from a tradition on my dad’s side. Germans have worked into their social contract the commandment that punctuality demonstrates manners and respect for the people you are meeting. They follow a strict code that boils down to this:

5 Minutes Early Is On Time; On Time Is Late; Late Is Unacceptable

You might not agree with this idea or social convention, but the world still runs on it and you need to learn it to not be seen as a shitbird by others.


A Background for Non Punctuals as to why Punctuals Dread Meeting Up With You

The real purpose for punctuality in a world where we no longer travel by horse is manners. You’re showing respect to others that you’ve made the effort enough to be where you said you would be at the agreed upon time.

Punctual people take this as an unbreakable rule. They always show others this respect and expect it in return.

No one is saying being late one time or infrequently means you’re a rude dick, but being habitually late (without any efforts at remediation… which we will cover) is a sign that you do not respect others enough to value their time and effort spent getting to the agreed upon meeting.

You might see your habitual lateness as a quirk… like someone saying “um” a lot when nervous, but others see it as a lack of respect and inconsiderate.

Most often, habitually late people make it to planes, trains, buses, and doctor’s appointments on time, so we know that punctuality can be achieved by habitually late people, but these people simply do not carry over these skills into the rest of their lives

Messages You Send When You’re Habitually Late

  • The things that distracted me are more important than the person I am meeting with
  • I am untrustworthy
  • I am inconsiderate of other people’s time or feelings
  • I am not particularly capable at doing adult things
  • I crave people’s attention and this is how I choose to get it
  • I don’t understand priorities
  • I don’t think the people I am meeting are important enough to be on time for
  • I am fundamentally disorganized

None of these messages are nice messages to send to people, no matter how inadvertent you may deem the slight. This is how punctual people view your lack of judgement. If you don’t want to send these messages, you need to learn how to become punctual.

How To Become Punctual

The good news is that if you missed the boat growing up learning how to be punctual, you can still learn. It’s very easy.

The Magic Of The Workback Schedule

Workback schedules are easy to learn and will save you years of embarrassment from never turning up on time because of “traffic.”

  1. Look up where you have to go on Google Maps, and make sure to use the correct button for transportation type. This will help you figure out what’s the last possible minute you can leave where you are to still be on time.
  2. Time how long commutes to locations take in different types of traffic and at different times of day. Understanding how long things take is easy. You simply need to time how long things you normally do take. Write it down in an Evernote Note with the Origin, Destination, and Duration. This will help you understand time cushions.
  3. Build in time cushions. If Google Maps says it takes 20 minutes to walk to a bar but you know that it’s rush hour, or that there is construction, or that you’re going to be carrying something, build in a time cushion. Add 10–15 minutes in as a buffer to ensure you will still arrive on time. The cushion has to be extended for longer trips (for instance, a 3 1/2 hour commute to a cottage would need a time cushion of at least 45 minutes if you have traffic warnings of construction.) Time cushions should start out giving you a lot of extra time, and then you can tweak them as you get more punctual.
  4. Get used to being early and plan accordingly. Some people refuse to be on time because they “hate waiting around.” You know who hates waiting around? People who have to consistently wait for your late ass all the time. You know what people who have to wait for a bit do? They do something on their phones or read a newspaper. Come prepared. Don’t take off, leaving your chances of returning from a coffee shop up to fate. Chances are, once others start rolling up, you’ll be the centre of attention for being on time anyway, so win-win.
  5. Plan your daily schedule with all meeting transitions worked back. The only way you will get better at estimating how long things take, the more punctual you will become. This exercise can start out like a pain in the butt, but might actually help you quantify where your time goes during the day. Make a note of anyone who attempts to delay you as part of your notes on how long things take.
  6. Learn how to (politely) cut people short so you can be on time. A lot of people begin their days punctual and it gets progressively worse as the day goes on. If you’ve ever been to the doctor, you understand this phenomenon from witnessing it. If you have a written estimate of how long your daily meeting commutes will take, you will know when to cut off meetings and phone calls in order to be on time. Tell the person running over that you’re sorry, but you need to make an appointment and punctuality is important to you. The bonus here is that by using punctuality for others as your excuse to cut people off, you’re laying the groundwork that you are a punctual, considerate person.

What To Do If You Followed the Plan And You’re Still Going to Be Late

The battle cry of the habitually late is always some vague reference to “unforeseeable circumstances.”

  • Staying too late at a meeting before the next one is not an unforeseeable circumstance
  • Traffic on streets before 9 or after 4 is not an unforeseeable circumstance
  • Your hairstyle taking too long is not an unforeseeable circumstance
  • You running errands and failing to keep track of time is not an unforeseeable circumstance.

What can you do if you know you’re going to be late? Communicate.

As soon as humanly possible to all the people you will be inconveniencing.

If you’re following the correct way to calculate and plan your commutes, then you should only ever be late a few times here and there. What you need to do if something does happen beyond your control is be proactive.

Everyone has a mobile phone now. There is no excuse for not texting as soon as you get in that Taxi crawling across Lakeshore to the people that you will be late because of traffic. (You should pay close attention to the time it actually does take and the time of day to MAKE BETTER ARRANGEMENTS for the next time.)

Punctuality is a muscle that you constantly have to exercise.

Texting as soon as you have a sense that you will be late can save your reputation, so you should absolutely do this as soon as it’s humanly possible.

Texting 5 minutes before, at the time you’re supposed to meet, or even after the agreed upon time is extremely rude and discourteous, so you had better be apologetic as your opener. (Or you’d better have the license plate of the car that hit you.)

How to Apologize For Being Late

Everyone is late sometimes. The idea is to minimize it as much as possible, and know how to properly handle a situation when it does arise.

Here’s what an ideal apology for being late looks like:

I’m sorry I am late. I guess I didn’t leave early enough for the traffic today. I am sorry I inconvenienced you. Can I make it up to you by___________?

These are the 4 basic messages you need to convey.

  • Immediate admission you did something wrong
  • A short explanation why and your culpability in it
  • A recognition of the impact it had on the person you were late for
  • An offer to make the situation better for the person you were late for

If you’re the type of person who thinks they shouldn’t have to apologize for being late: YOUR FRIENDS SECRETLY HATE YOU FOR THIS. Be a better person and just learn to fucking apologize.

Apologies that don’t have all 4 parts are incomplete, and won’t have the intended effect, which is righting the situation with the other party after your faux pas.

Developing punctuality skills pay off big dividends in personal and work relationships and can actually help you relax, because you won’t be in a constant state of chasing your tail. All it takes is a bit of time and practice to learn how to correctly estimate your commute times. Try these tips for a month and watch as you become a calmer, more punctual friend.