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How to Never Be Late Again

Curing chronic lateness takes a specific type of soul-searching

Allie Volpe
Nov 9, 2018 · 5 min read
Illustration: IR_Stone/Getty
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If I have ever sent you a text saying, “Running a little late but on my way!” at the exact time we were supposed to meet, chances are I’m still in bed. In a towel. Fresh out of the shower.

I don’t try to be tardy, contrary to popular belief among my friends. The problem is that I like to complete as many tasks as possible before I leave the house, and I tend to underestimate how long those tasks will take. Deep down, I know I don’t have time to clean the whole apartment or get to inbox zero — but if I don’t do it now, I’ll ruminate over it all night. Against my better judgment, I keep checking off to-do list items until the last possible second.

Psychologist Linda Sapadin, who specializes in helping people beat their procrastination habits, would call me an “overdoer.” It’s one of the six lateness personality types outlined in her book It’s About Time! The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them. The overdoer’s plate is typically filled, and they can always find something to occupy any downtime. But, Sapadin says, they don’t know when to say “let me put this away” versus “let me finish reading this whole newspaper.” Basically, I’m terrible at deprioritizing unimportant busy work, and it totally derails my day.

Fear of public speaking might cause you to drag your feet before a meeting, or you may dawdle before heading to a party because you hate being the only single person there.

This is helpful information, even if it is a little uncomfortable to get such an on-the-nose diagnosis. Correcting chronic lateness takes some soul-searching — recognizing you have issues with time management is a start, but it isn’t enough to truly change. To become someone who’s always on time (or even early!), you’ll need to dig into the causes of your lateness and tackle the problem by focusing on its source.

Take a Critical Eye to Your Personality

People who always run late have varying underlying reasons for why they can’t get to work or social functions on time. Maybe they’re trying to maximize their time, or they’re thrill-seekers, or they just hate being early.

In addition to the overdoer, Sapadin has five other classifications for the chronically late, including the perfectionist, the dreamer, the worrier, the crisis-maker, and the defier. “You would think a perfectionist would always be on time because they want to be perfect, but they may be late because they don’t want to leave the house because everything needs to be in order,” Sapadin explains. “The dreamer, they don’t like to deal with those annoying details. The crisis-maker, that’s the one who works well under pressure: It’s a 15-minute trip, so they leave when it’s the very last minute.” The worrier can become too paralyzed by what-ifs to get anything done, while the defier chafes against deadlines and start times they didn’t set themselves.

Another personality trait that can predict lateness is polychronicity, or a preference for multitasking. In his research, Jeff Conte, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, found that people who jumped from project to project without focusing on any single one were on time less often for their appointments.

In a separate study, Conte found that Type B personalities — more laid-back, creative types — perceived time as moving slower than it actually does, while competitive and driven Type A personalities felt a minute elapsing quicker than reality. If you fall into the former category, it helps to keep in the back of your mind that you probably have less time than you think.

In general, knowing how you see time can help you better manage it. “Keeping track of what distracts people in advance of a meeting, keeping track of how long things take in advance of when you need to get out the door, those are things people can reasonably do,” Conte says.

Confront Your Fears

In some cases, the cause of lateness can be less about your personality and more about the specific situation you’re late for. A fear of public speaking, for instance, might cause you to drag your feet before a meeting, or you may dawdle before heading to a party because you hate being the only single person there. Or maybe your fear is something more concrete, like not getting enough sleep, so you hit the snooze button a half-dozen times before getting up. For me, it’s not completing everything on my to-do list.

By identifying your triggers, you can develop specific strategies to keep yourself on track, whether that’s extra prep before a presentation or enlisting a friend to be your buddy at a social gathering.

And if you find yourself in a crunch, you’ll know how to reprioritize: “Basically, what you have to do is put being on time ahead of other things,” including being productive or getting more sleep, says time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders.

Pretend You’re in High School Again

Sapadin encourages her clients to take their cues from the school day: Each class runs for a designated time, and when the bell rings, students leave for their next class regardless of whether the teacher has gotten through the lesson. Those hard cutoffs are key to staying on schedule.

“It’s good for you to think, ‘Okay, the bell has rung on this. Time for me to get to that whether it’s finished or not,” Sapadin says.

Live in Reality

Most of us tend to schedule our day according to best-case scenarios. But to get to functions on time or early, you’ll need to be realistic with how long tasks like commuting and getting ready actually take. Saunders suggests working backwards and building in a buffer: If you need to leave by 7:45 a.m., and it takes you 45 minutes to shower and get ready, you should set your alarm for 6:45 a.m., just in case.

You don’t need to get too nitty-gritty with scheduling, like penciling in two minutes to brush your teeth, Saunders says. But it is important to factor in those sneaky time-consuming tasks, like parking and walking to your office. “The little things that aren’t directly related to your current appointment can cause you to be late if you let them go to the 11th hour,” she says.

Make sure to zoom out with your planning as well. Think about the week and month ahead, anticipate any errands you’ll need to run, and schedule time for them. For example, if you’re always late to birthday parties because you wait until the day of to buy a gift, put a reminder in your phone to go shopping a few weeks out, Saunders suggests. If you have multiple events coming up, block out a whole day to tackle all those gifts and cards at once. In the long run, you’ll save yourself time — and the need for a “running a little late but on my way” text.

Allie Volpe

Written by

Writes about culture + lifestyle for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, The Cut, and more.

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