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How to Stop Being Late

Try these ten tips to build sustainable habits to be on time.

Key points

  • Condition yourself for punctuality by planning ahead and expecting the unexpected.
  • Rethink and embrace being early, particularly in the context of respect for others' time.
  • Experiments with different techniques to see what works for you and your busy life.

We all have a horror story about being late, from arriving at a wedding just as the bride and groom are running off in a shower of birdseed to spilling popcorn kernels in front of miffed movie-goers when we’ve arrived mid-film. Being late even shows up in our nightmares—who hasn’t woken up in a sweat from a late-for-a-final-exam dream? Before you’re late for your next important date, consider these 10 tips for being right on time:

Tip #1: Re-estimate how much time you think things will take.

Optimism (or, ahem, delusion) is the biggest driver behind our underestimation of how long tasks will take. Try adding a buffer of at least 25 to 50 percent more time than you’ve estimated. The bigger the task or the longer the travel time, the more wiggle room you have to build in. Especially if it’s a task you’ve not yet encountered before, err on the side of caution even if it sounds like a breeze.

Tip #2: Account for transition activities.

These include traffic, getting kids out of the house (“You have to poop now?”), and the big one-two punch, parking and walking. These are the mundane tasks that stealthily (yet all too consistently) throw off our estimates. Too often we look up the drive time on Google Maps and take the estimate as gold. Instead, consider bookending that estimate with extra time to find your kid’s other shoe and feed the parking meter. It seems obvious, but it’s not. Try it and watch your life change.

Tip #3: Beware “one more thing.”

This also falls under the optimism umbrella, but deserves its own tip. Oftentimes we’ll try to squeeze in one more thing—get gas, check email—which inevitably makes us late. A college friend once said he had to do “just one thing” before a road trip. I envisioned a trip to the ATM or mailbox, but he then proceeded to replace his transmission. By himself. With an acetylene torch from the art department.

Even though we know better, we think that the last errand will magically take no time at all. So, make like Jacques the shrimp in "Finding Nemo" and tell yourself, “I shall resist.”

Tip #4: Beware “I’ll just do everything else faster.”

We might be tempted to press the snooze alarm or squeeze in one last task, agreeing with the devil on our shoulder that all we need to do is hit fast forward for the rest of our morning. But trying to hurry just makes us stressed (and, of course, late). It’s worth it to get up on time—you can even place your phone or alarm clock on the other side of the room. This might require a shift of evening habits to allow you to go to bed earlier (but that’s a whooooole 'nother article).

Tip #5: Rethink your semantics.

Instead of thinking, “We have to be at the recital at 5:00,” think “The curtain goes up at 5:00.” There’s a big difference between being in your seat, program in hand, versus having technically arrived, but still cruising around looking for parking at the appointed hour.

Therefore, change your wording: “I need to be in the restaurant at 7:30,” “The meeting begins at 2:00,” or “I have an hour to finish this, and drive there, and park.” Spelling it out gives us a sense of the magnitude of the steps involved.

Tip #6: Being early isn’t a waste of time.

Most of us hate wasting time. When we’re kept waiting, like in a doctor’s waiting room or a restaurant where we have a reservation, we get annoyed and agitated. Therefore, we assume that deliberately getting somewhere early will feel the same way. Not necessarily! When you’re deliberately early, you’re in charge, so you get to fill the time however you want, knowing that it doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s convenience. Indeed, that last email, crammed in before leaving the house, could actually be written leisurely once you’ve actually arrived and are in the waiting area.

To this point, though, a tip I often hear is to keep something productive on hand to fill in those empty few minutes: write a thank you note, catch up on email. If it works for you, great. But also consider using the time for something pleasant, not just productive: look through photos on your phone, read a real book (how quaint!), or strike up a conversation with other early birds (bonus: at a business event, casual conversation beforehand builds relationships, which qualifies as super productive).

Tip #7: Aim for 10 minutes early, if only to increase your margin of error.

Here, punctuality is boiled down to a math problem. Think of it this way: aiming to arrive precisely on time gives you basically a one-minute window of arrival. If your event starts at noon, you aim to arrive at noon, and you arrive even at 12:01, you’re late. The margin of error is too small. Stress is guaranteed.

Instead, if your event starts at noon and you aim to get there at 11:50, you have a 10-minute window of arrival. Much more realistic and much less likely to make you drive like a stunt double.

Tip #8: Transfer your biggest morning headache to the night before.

You don’t have to be extreme—please don’t sleep in tomorrow’s clothes—but consider taking the biggest time drains from your morning and doing them the night before. Packing kids’ school lunches, putting your keys, phone, and wallet in one place, even showering and laying your clothes out for the morning can all be done before you hit the sack.

Tip #9: Get into the habit of thinking ahead.

Most tips you’ll find here (or elsewhere online) are based on the assumption that we think ahead about our tasks. For example, do X early, estimate Y more accurately. But most of us are late precisely because we forget to think ahead. We look up the appointment’s address at the last minute and realize it’s farther away than we thought. Or we forget that our reservations are at the height of rush hour.

Thinking ahead is a part of organization and time-management skills, something that takes time to develop. But the greatest added value can come from this: In addition to packing those kid lunches, consider visualizing the next day the night before. If you break it down by chunk or by scheduled meetings and events, it’s easier to picture what preparation may go into each, and to plan accordingly. (Or for true punctuality ninjas, look at the upcoming week on Sunday night.)

Where do you have to be and when? Are there new addresses to map out online? Are there any really important events, like an interview, a funeral, or a kid's recital you can’t be late for? Anything scheduled back-to-back-to-back? An always-punctual colleague blocks 45 minutes for 30-minute meetings to allow a buffer for surprises (like the inevitable "that guy" who makes the meeting run over with questions specific only to him). Pinpoint the weak spots and plan (or reschedule) accordingly.

Tip #10: Try it once and see.

If you’re chronically late, pick one upcoming event for which you’ll be on time. Then do it up right: Plan ahead, account for all transitions, leave early, and aim to be the first one there.

Then, observe the process of everyone else’s arrival. Notice how you feel calm instead of frantic, that you don’t have to feel guilty, and most importantly, notice how you feel when others arrive late.

There’s a French saying, which translates loosely to, “While you keep a man waiting, he reflects on your shortcomings.” I might add, “...even if you’ve texted that you’re running late.” Putting yourself in the shoes of those you’ve kept waiting is a powerful motivator to change for the better. You’ll come off as more professional, more respectful, and more competent. Not to mention more relaxed.

Call it prompt, punctilious, or just plain old on time. There’s no zealot like the newly converted; try it out a few times. You’ll love moving from being put on the spot to getting there on the dot.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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