People who struggle with chronic lateness are rarely indifferent about their lack of timeliness: They spend nail-biting trips to the airport worrying they’ll miss their flight. They suffer sleepless nights panicking that they won’t complete projects by their due dates. And they endure guilt-laden rides to their children’s soccer games, knowing they won’t make it on time.
Given the amount of stress their lateness causes them—not to mention those around them—one would think that they would take steps to improve their time management and abolish their perennial battle with the clock. However, even those who are motivated to do so often struggle to change their behavior.
What frustrates their long-suffering friends, colleagues, and loved ones is that they have a hard time understanding why the person doesn’t "just fix it." After all, it isn’t that complicated a problem to resolve: If you always tend to be late, simply allot yourself more time. This assumption is why those impacted by a person’s chronic lateness often assume it involves a measure of willfulness or passive aggressiveness, and why they then respond accordingly.
Yet what separates tardiness of a passive aggressive nature from a real time-management issue is the latter’s chronic and universal nature. When a couple is fighting and an otherwise on-time husband shows up late to his father-in-law’s birthday party, it is likely passive aggressive behavior in action. But if that same husband also showed up late to his own birthday party, it is more likely a time-management issue at play.
Why Chronic Lateness Is Resistant to Change
What makes chronic lateness so difficult to correct is that it involves a stubborn blind spot—one that evades the person’s best and most sincere efforts to identify exactly what it is that goes wrong in their calculations and decision making.
The good news is that we typically have only one or two such blind spots, and it is those that trip us up repeatedly. Once we figure out exactly where those blind spots are, we can devise systems and strategies to minimize their impact and even avoid them altogether.
Here's an example: Some time ago I worked with a man in his forties who was always 10-to-15 minutes late for his sessions—arriving stressed, irritable, and sometimes literally out of breath. When I asked him to take me through how much time he allotted for his trip to my office in Midtown Manhattan, he said the following:
“My office is a five-minute walk to the subway. It’s a 10-minute subway ride, and your office is only a block away from the subway stop. I give myself an extra five minutes in case I have to wait for the train. So I try to leave 20 minutes before the appointment.”
While his math might sound reasonable, it actually is not. His first blind spot is that he looks only at the big-ticket items (getting to the subway, waiting for the train, and the duration of the ride) while completely omitting smaller aspects of the trip that also take time. For example, my office is on the 22nd floor of the building, and one has to sign in with a security guard in the lobby (as is common at midtown Manhattan office buildings). Getting from the door of my office building to my actual office can take anywhere from two-to-five minutes depending on whether there is a line for the security guard and/or the elevator.
The man’s own office building is also a high-rise, meaning it can take him two-to-five minutes to get from his desk to the street. Lastly, although my office is indeed only a little over one block from the subway, depending on where one exists, it can still take three-to-five minutes to get out of the subway and walk to my building. All in all, these ‘minor’ details can add anywhere from seven-to-15 minutes to the trip—which is exactly how late he usually arrives.
His second blind spot can be seen in his phrasing, “I try to leave 20 minutes before the appointment.” This too is a typical blind spot for people with lateness issues. Given the small (and usually insufficient) margins for error they allow themselves, telling themselves they should try to leave by a certain time is a very different imperative than telling themselves they must leave by a certain time.
Other common blind spots for people with lateness issues include assuming how long a task or journey should take, rather than how long it can take—assuming traffic shouldn’t be bad, rather than assuming it might be bad; relying on others without leaving margin for error—assuming you can leave your house by 5 pm because a technician you're waiting for specified a 3-5 pm window, even though they might be late and only start the job at 5; not building in general cushions for unforeseen problems; and neglecting to get comfortable with the idea of being early—by planning what to do when you have a few minutes to kill at the airport before your flight, at your kids soccer game, or yes, in my waiting room.
While lateness can cause tensions and frictions in a person’s social or family life, lateness in the workplace can be responsible for significant and detrimental failures, ones that can limit a person’s productivity and their chances for advancement.
Taking the time to identify blind spots and making efforts to correct them is a necessary and worthwhile investment that will benefit our personal and professional lives as well as our health, as we will be shedding not only a bad habit but also the endless amounts of stress it causes.
For more about correcting failures and blind spots check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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