The Complete Guide to Being on Time
How Even the Habitually Tardy Can Achieve Peak Punctuality and Never Be Late Again
When I worked as a therapist, one of my clients — I’ll call her Maria — was constantly late. Ten or 20 minutes into every session, Maria would bluster into the room in a swirl of breathless apologies. She always looked sort of windswept. She existed in a state of perpetual panic and disorientation.
How many times have you had to skip breakfast, leave your shirt unironed, or leave your apartment with wet hair to avoid being late? How often do you find yourself running out of necessity, rather than out of a desire to keep fit?
It’s hard to overstate how destructive lateness can be. It leads to almost exclusively bad things.
- Missed opportunities. I don’t just mean the worst-case scenario, missing-the-interview-for-your-dream-job type of opportunities. I mean the whole range of opportunities you can miss by not having control over your time or presenting as a well-organized and professional person.
- Damage to your reputation. A study by Jobs.ie revealed that 46 percent of employees feel resentful toward their persistently late colleagues. And around one-third of managers have dismissed an employee for lateness.
- Psychological harm. Lateness causes stress, anxiety, guilt, and shame. We’ve all experienced that awful feeling — sitting in traffic, tapping your feet, and willing the cars in front of you to move as though you had some psychokinetic power. You could be experiencing hours of unnecessary stress every week.
However, almost all lateness — especially habitual lateness — is avoidable.
In this article we’re going to look at some of the best knowledge available from academic researchers and experts on lateness. We’ll look at this problem from three angles:
- The underlying reasons for lateness
- Techniques to improve punctuality
- Methods to manage feelings around lateness
There’s really no downside to gaining control of your time. It’s a matter of taking responsibility, getting yourself organized, and taking a proactive attitude toward meeting your obligations.
Cultivating a Punctual Personality
Figure out the root causes of your time management problem
When I first started working with my client Maria, I was offended by her lateness. I considered doing what many therapists do and denying her entry after 10 minutes into the session. I figured that her lateness reflected the low priority that she placed on therapy.
Over the course of our work, however, Maria and I realized she was late for the opposite reason. A lack of self-value led her to be late for any occasions that were important to her. She’d missed exams, job interviews, wedding ceremonies —all of which always ended in drama and gave her a reason to be miserable.
This is a form of self-sabotage. You might think this sounds a little far-fetched. I used to scoff at such theories too —until these themes came up in my clients’ lives, and my own life, over and over again.
It’s possible that there are deeper reasons for your own persistent tardiness. There’s nothing particularly wacky about this idea. If you’ve identified that lateness is a recurrent feature in your life, it’s very unlikely that this is an accident.
Types of persistently late people
In her book Never Be Late Again, punctuality guru Diana DeLonzor identifies four types of persistently late people:
- The Perfectionist. Perfectionists needs everything to be in order before they leave the house. They’re still proofreading the footnotes of their assignment when the deadline passes. They focus an inordinate amount of attention on the small stuff. Perfectionists should note that they may be failing to “see the forest for the trees.” Do you really need to rearrange the shoe rack before you walk out the door? Are you really going to prioritize washing up last night’s wine glasses over catching the bus?
- The Dreamer. Dreamers suffer from time delusion, seriously underestimating the length of time it will take to complete a task or arrive at a destination. Dreamers need to wake up to the fact that they’re not thinking things through properly. If you’re constantly rushing to get somewhere, this should tell you that whatever you’re doing isn’t working.
- The Crisis Maker. Crisis Makers are hooked on the thrill of the last-minute rush. Sometimes they even believe they perform better under pressure. But this is a very risky and destructive strategy. DeLonzor suggests that Crisis Makers should consider other ways to get their required adrenaline boost. Rather than racing through the traffic each weekday morning, maybe it’d be better to take up motorcycle racing on the weekend.
- The Defier. Defiers see punctuality as a form of systemic oppression. Lateness is an act of rebellion. Defiers should be aware that their own interests are hurt much more than the establishment’s when they refuse to show up on time. There are other, more effective outlets for revolutionary fervor than showing up late.
Awareness of your tendencies is a good place to start your efforts to stop being late. But real change can take a lot of time and patience. Don’t expect miracles overnight. Nevertheless, there are practical fixes that correspond to each of these patterns, which we’ll look at below.
Time urgency: Learn to value your time
If you don’t entirely connect with one of DeLonzor’s types above, don’t worry. There’s another lateness determinant that has been the subject of a considerable amount of academic research.
In the mid-twentieth century, Friedman and Rosenman developed a body of work that divided people into two personality types — Type A and Type B.
- Type A people are said to be ambitious, time-conscious, competitive, and organized.
- Type B people are more relaxed and live life at a slower pace.
On the face of it, you should take this research with a large pinch of salt. This applies to any psychological model, but particularly the model of Type A and Type B personalities. It’s worth noting criticism by Petticrew, Lee, and McCree about the researchers’ links with the tobacco industry.
That being said, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something to be gleaned from the model in terms of how it relates to punctuality.
Research by Dishon-Berkovits and Koslowsky suggests that people displaying Type A personality characteristics have lower rates of lateness. What distinguished Type A people in this study was the characteristic of “time urgency.” These people thought of time as a valuable resource and were more likely to manage their time effectively.
In a 2001 study, Waller, Conde, and Carpenter also found that people grouped into these two personality types also tended to perceive time differently. When asked to estimate when a minute had expired, Type A people on average perceived it as lasting 58 seconds, while Type B people estimated it as 77 seconds. As you can imagine, this small difference would have a very substantial impact over the course of an entire day.
It’s not all positives for Type A folks. Despite their career success and punctual nature, people with Type A personalities are angrier, more neurotic, less patient, and, supposedly, more prone to heart disease. Time urgency itself has downsides — it can mean that Type A people rush and become impatient.
Nevertheless, what we can learn from this research is that people who value time more highly tend to be more punctual.
Gaining Control of Your Time
Make the practical changes needed to always be on time
So far we’ve looked at a body of research that attempts to explain the various reasons why people are late. This is highly valuable. But bear in mind that understanding why lateness happens is only half the battle. As Rogelberg et al put it:
“Mere motivation to attend a meeting on time […] will not always translate to actual punctuality.”
We’re now going to take a look at how lateness has manifested in some of the people I’ve worked with — and in myself — and see what techniques have worked in overcoming these problems.
These methods correspond with DeLonzor’s four personality types, briefly outlined above. Her book will offer you a much more in-depth look at each.
The suggestions aren’t rocket science — but I’ve seen them successfully help people solve their persistent lateness problems. If you properly implement this advice, it’s pretty much guaranteed to help.
The Perfectionist: Create more time by starting your morning the night before
When it came down to it, my client Maria’s discovery that her lateness was a form of self-sabotage (note: Maria discovered this, not me) was nothing more than an interesting realization. To move it beyond the realm of “oh — that explains it” and improve her punctuality, she still needed to actually do stuff.
Maria was a Perfectionist. She was the kind of person who needed to have the house in perfect order before she stepped outside.
Because Maria found that she consistently had too little time to get ready in the morning, she decided to move a portion of her morning to the preceding evening.
There are certain elements of Maria’s morning routine that she started to deal with before she went to bed:
- Choosing and ironing the next day’s clothes
- Preparing breakfast—like overnight oats, frittata, and breakfast bars
- Taking a bath rather than opting for a shower in the morning
- Making lunch and packing a work bag
- Engaging in little habits like putting shoes by the door and taking the trash out
All of these things helped get her morning routine down to around 20 minutes. If you also have a long morning routine, doing just a few of these things could easily help cut your pre-work time in half.
Once Maria had accepted her underlying issues around lateness, the next step for her was to realize that she didn’t need to be held back this way forever. Implementing these simple steps meant that she soon began showing up for our appointments on time.
Now, you may be thinking that you don’t have a lot of time in the evenings either. I know that feeling. But if you have to fit this stuff in somewhere, you have a choice about whether you want to feel rushed and stressed, or calm and in control.
The Dreamer : Always plan to be early — and always assume you’ll have some unexpected delay
My own issues with lateness (now resolved) were most closely linked to the Dreamer personality type. I just had a very poor perception of how long things would take. No matter how early I got up, I never seemed to be able to catch a train without running for it.
A survey by CareerBuilder.com revealed some of the most common reasons people have for being late:
- Traffic (39 percent)
- Lack of sleep (19 percent)
- Public transport issues (8 percent)
- Bad weather (7 percent)
- Childcare issues (6 percent)
Any of these sound familiar? All of these except number two (which we’ll come back to later) are problems for Dreamers. They have certainly all been a problem for me. As Dreamers, we underestimate the amount of time something will take or overestimate how much we can squeeze into any given amount of time.
Here are some tactics I have employed to help me get over my punctuality issues as a Dreamer:
- I always allow an extra 20 minutes for my journey. I “pad” the time I need with a few extra minutes of “lateness insurance.”
- When taking public transportation, which I do practically every day, I take an earlier bus or train than is required to get me to my destination on time. Public transport can be consistently terrible in some areas — mine included. But complaining about it doesn’t solve the problem. I learned to accept this disadvantage and factor it in.
- When walking or cycling, I try out different routes to see which is faster. Those of you who drive to work can do the same thing. Set a reminder to check a traffic reporting app when you wake up in the morning and need to be somewhere.
- Set alarms to give yourself prep time. Most calendar applications allow you to set multiple reminders for a single appointment. Use them to set extra alarms for the time you need to leave, the time you need to jump in the shower so you’ll be ready to go, or a reminder to get your coffee made and your headphones and mic set properly for that video meeting.
I now think realistically about how long things take, and then I add extra time just in case. Personally, when walking, I often find I’m slower than Google Maps thinks I’ll be. I like to meander, and I hate to rush. So I always add around 10 percent to the estimated walk time.
I used to find then when it came to timing, I was plagued by a feeling of unluckiness or unfairness. It’s true that sometimes I was unlucky, and sometimes I still am. But if you’re often late, something about your routine is not working!
The Crisis Maker: Set your alarm early and get out of bed as soon as you hear it
I’ve been working with teens and young people for the past seven years. Oversleeping is a big problem for many younger people. With no disrespect meant, they sure do hate early mornings.
I now work in a university environment and sometimes cringe when I hear students complaining about “early” lectures that begin at 9 or 10 a.m. But then I remember how hard it was for me to crawl out of bed in the morning during my own undergraduate years.
This isn’t just laziness. Kelley et al., among others, have shown that young people’s biological clocks are just calibrated differently than those of older adults. Adolescents and young people tend to have a circadian rhythm that requires more sleep later in the day. I’m not exactly old myself, but I’m a very different person from who I was during my early 20s, when I would sleep late regularly.
Even if you’re not in your teens or 20s, you might find yourself late due to oversleeping. You may have gotten in the habit of being in crisis mode and racing off in a panic every morning.
Here are some of the tactics that have helped the late-rising students I’ve worked with. They could help anyone who has trouble getting out of bed in time to have a more organized morning.
- Try an alarm clock app. With Alarmy, for example, the alarm will only stop ringing if certain conditions are met. I’ve used this app myself — when I want to get up and start working early, I’ll set the alarm so that it only stops ringing once I’ve taken a photo of my open laptop.
- Resist the snooze button. I’ve known students who have set a series of 10 or more alarms to go off five minutes apart. If this sounds like you, you may want to cut this out. When you go back to sleep after an alarm, your body relaxes and sinks back into a sleep cycle; on the next alarm, you interrupt that cycle, which can increase your sleep inertia—the grogginess you feel during the rest of your morning.
- Set the alarm early. This may sound obvious, but often the most obvious advice is the most effective. Twenty minutes less sleep can be negligible, but 20 minutes extra in the morning can be a lifesaver.
- Leave a bottle of water next to the bed. This is another one that works for me when I want to get up particularly early. The moment I hear that alarm in the morning, I’ll reach out and drink the water. It’s no double espresso, but I find it makes it easier for me to crawl out of bed.
- Get to bed earlier. You know it makes sense. I can’t tell you the number of people I know whose lives have improved by virtue of going to bed earlier and having a regular routine. This can take a lot of work and may even require some significant lifestyle changes. But getting better sleep is just an all-around good thing. You could even set an alarm to remind you that it’s time to get ready for bed.
It’s obvious to me that students who are often late and who suffer attendance problems are less likely to thrive. I should make it clear that this is not always due to oversleeping, and even when it is, I do not equate this lateness with laziness. As we’ve explored above, there are myriad reasons for people’s time management issues.
But there are clear links between student success and lateness. Don’t take my word for it — a study by Ekstrom et al. revealed that frequently late students are likely to have lower grades and lower rates of graduation. And waking up late is a frequent problem for people of all ages who are chronically tardy.
If you’ve never had a truly leisurely morning on a workday, give it a try. Having time to spare before your commute is a great feeling.
The Defier: Make positive changes at work so that you want to be on time
It’s perhaps not surprising to hear that people who are less happy in their jobs are more likely to be late to meetings. In a 2013 study concerning lateness to meetings, Rogelberg et al. discovered a positive correlation between lateness and motivation. People who were more frequently late were less satisfied in their jobs and more likely to be considering quitting. Hanisch and Hulin also found that lateness went hand-in-hand with other so-called “withdrawal behaviors” at work, such as absenteeism, retirement, and commitment avoidance.
I once worked with a guy who truly hated his job. Let’s call him Milos. Milos and I were both working in a care home for adults with learning disabilities. Milos had migrated from another country, leaving his family behind to try to earn some money. He regretted his decision.
Milos’s biggest problem was that he felt taken for granted. He’d get the shifts no one else wanted. He’d be called upon to cover the shifts of sick coworkers. And as one of the few people working in the home who could drive, he had to work every weekend so that the residents could go out on trips.
Resentment seeped out of this guy’s pores. He’d sit reading the newspaper whenever he wasn’t required to attend to something urgent. He’d leave either early or the second his shift ended. And he would always — and I mean always — show up late.
I don’t know what came over him, but one day Milos decided to change his situation. Milos spoke to our manager about taking fewer evening and weekend shifts. He said that he could no longer be relied upon to cover for sick colleagues. And he requested that another driver be transferred from another of the company’s care homes.
Once his work situation improved, Milos became more engaged with his duties. He stopped constantly watching the clock, waiting for his shift to end. And guess what — he started showing up on time.
If you’re constantly late for a job that you hate, you might be able to learn from Milos’s situation.
- Ask your colleagues for help.
- Request a review with your manager.
- Consider a career change!
If you’re dragging yourself out of the house and into a job you hate every day, you’re far less likely to show up on time. This is a problem that goes beyond mere punctuality. But you have more control over it than you might think.
Managing Your Feelings Around Lateness
Recognize that lateness is not all your fault — but it is your responsibility
On any given occasion, it’s unlikely that you’ll be entirely “to blame” for your lateness. Sometimes your early train and your backup train will be canceled. Sometimes your alarm and your backup alarm genuinely won’t go off.
Parents won’t be surprised to hear the results of a study by Dishon-Berkovits and Koslowsky that found that employees with children aged two or younger are more likely to be late.
There are also cultural factors at play. People have been shown to actually perceive time differently across different cultures. For example, Levine, West, and Reis found that clocks and watches were less accurate in Brazil than in the United States. This isn’t to say that Brazilians are less organized than North Americans. It’s simply that some cultures place higher importance on punctuality than others. This isn’t inherently good or bad.
You have a choice about whether to be on time. Poor punctuality is not necessarily your fault — the fact that it’s affected by the culture you were born into is a clear indication of this. But dealing with it is your responsibility. If you know that an issue is causing problems in your life, you have control over whether you do something about it.
Eckhart Tolle argues that clinging onto past mistakes integrates these events into our sense of self. If you blame yourself for your lateness, you’re accepting it as “part of you.” The ego is highly reluctant to give up any element of self-identity — even negative attributes. Learn from events, but don’t punish yourself, or you’ll find it’s even harder to make changes.
And when you know you’re going to be late, when there’s nothing you can do to change that, don’t get stressed or anxious. Become aware of your feelings and consider whether they’re helping you. Consider what actions you can take—letting the other party know you’ll be late, rescheduling the appointment, shifting your priorities (for example, taking a more expensive form of transportation), and, of course, doing things differently the next time.
Guilt and shame are disempowering. Figuring out the origins of the problems you experience is important, but don’t obsess over them.
You may have tried some of the tactics I’ve outlined here before. But if you’ve really tried every practical step listed above and you’re still regularly late, there may be something more fundamental going wrong for you.
How can it be different this time? Well, now you’re armed with more insight about the psychological and practical causes of lateness. And by reading this article to the end, you’ve already made a commitment to change.
In short, take these seven steps:
- Figure out the deeper reasons for your punctuality problem.
- Increase the value you place on time.
- Plan your day better — always try to overestimate the time it will take to complete tasks.
- Get up earlier — try out different alarms and drink water as soon as you wake up. Get more sleep, if you need to.
- Trade some morning time for evening time — prepare whatever you can the night before.
- Give yourself something to be on time for — if you find that, deep down, you don’t want to be on time, this is a problem that needs solving in its own right.
- Make a positive habit of not blaming yourself — become aware of the negative emotions about lateness you’re carrying with you.