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This Is Why Some People Are Always Late

... and three ways to change your (or their) routines to fix it.

Key points

  • Research shows chronic lateness may originate in time-based prospective memory (TBPM).
  • The main culprit in people being too early or too late is their time estimation bias.
  • Deciding ahead of time how long each phase of a task will take is an important part of time estimation.
Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

You set your alarm on your phone. You vow (yet again) that you’ll leave home 5 minutes early. You set out everything you need the night before. And then, despite your best efforts and intentions, you show up 15 minutes late for your first morning appointment, meeting, or class.

Or perhaps you’re supposed to take your allergy medication twice per day, 12 hours apart. You invariably end up 2 or 3 hours late with one or both doses.

It all seems hopeless: You’re always late, you’ve always been late for everything, and you’ll never be able to get anywhere on time.

Or maybe it’s not you who’s always late for everything—maybe it’s your partner, your kids, or your co-worker. You would love to fix this chronic lateness, but given that it's gone on for so long, it seems unlikely that will happen.

But there's hope: New research on our internal clock suggests there are ways to break the pattern forever. There are, no doubt, plenty of motivation-based reasons for chronic lateness. Freudian psychologists may cite causes such as neurotic self-destructive tendencies or a flaw in your early developmental stages. Your personality might be to blame, particularly if you’re low on the trait of conscientiousness.

But what if your lateness had nothing to do with intent or your dispositional makeup? Could it be something as simple as a correctable cognitive defect?

According to a recent study by Washington University psychologists Emily Waldun and Mark McDaniel (2016), chronic lateness may originate, at least somewhat, in what’s called time-based prospective memory (TBPM). In the lab, researchers test TBPM by giving participants a certain amount of time to complete a task, requiring them to pace themselves so they actually get it done. Participants have the option of checking the clock before the available time runs out. You might think that everyone would take the option of checking the clock, but the experiments are set up so that it’s easy to forget to take advantage of this strategy because participants are occupied by their task.

The situation in TBPM experiments is analogous to what happens when you’re engrossed in one activity, such as catching up on your social media feed, at the same time that you’re also supposed to be getting ready to leave your home to be on time for work. You think only 5 minutes have passed when in fact you’ve let 20 minutes slip by.

People who are good at TBPM tasks seem better able to regulate their own clock-checking behavior, so they're less reliant on their potentially flawed internal timekeeper. However, there’s more to being on time than comparing your internal clock to the one the rest of the world uses. You also have to be able to gauge the amount of time it might take, say, for you to get from one place to another. As good as Google maps can be for determining an ETA, it can’t tell you whether you’ll have a random conversation with a friend you happen to meet along the way or whether you'll decide you can't go any further without a cup of coffee. A 10-minute walk can easily become a 30-minute walk if you get engrossed in a conversation with your friend or stuck with a slow barista. Your plan might be solid, but it can fail in the execution.

Waldun and McDaniel were interested in TBPM from the standpoint of people being late and also of people being early. You might be chronically early to appointments due to faulty planning or poor execution of your time-based strategy; if you're afraid of being late, you build in too much unnecessary travel time. Although being early won’t get you in as much trouble as being late, it still means that you’re wasting time that could be better spent in other ways, such as sleeping longer or enjoying a second cup of coffee.

The Washington University researchers also were curious to learn about age differences in TBPM. In their study, participants from younger and older adult age groups were asked to complete a somewhat complex lab task that was intended to mirror situations in everyday life in which you must keep tabs on yourself while doing one thing in order to get the next task finished on time.

In the first phase of the study, participants were given a set of trivia questions to answer and were told that after completing the task, they would be asked to estimate how long it took them. While completing the trivia task, participants heard either zero, two, or four pop songs playing in the background. The idea behind the music was that participants who heard more songs might overestimate the time it took them to finish, while those hearing fewer should underestimate the elapsed time. In the end, it took an average of 11 minutes for people to complete the task.

During the second phase, participants were given a different task—putting together a jigsaw puzzle. They were told that they would, after getting as far as they could on the puzzle, be asked to complete the trivia quiz—for which they would have exactly 20 minutes. The goal was to finish the quiz by pushing “enter” at the 20-minute mark—no earlier and no later. In other words, they were to pace themselves during the puzzle task so they’d have the right amount of time to complete the quiz. The experiment had a game-like quality in that participants received points for answering the questions correctly, putting the puzzle together, and hitting the button once 20 minutes had elapsed.

From the findings, it was clear that some people are better time estimators than others. The music playing seemed to make a difference for the younger adults, but not for the older ones. Also, younger adults took advantage of clock-checking more than older adults.

The main culprit in people being too early or too late was their time estimation bias. To get yourself where you need to be at the right time, you need to keep your internal clock in tip-top shape. It helps to use environmental cues, especially if you think you’re not very good at estimating time. It may be a bit more taxing cognitively because, as the authors point out, “prospective time estimation is attentionally demanding” (p. 1059). However, the benefits outweigh the risks if being on time is your goal.

With this in mind, here are the three tips that the study suggests can help you reduce your own time estimation bias.

  1. Check the clock. There’s no need to try to tough it out by thinking you can time your tasks on your own. If you need to keep on track because of back-to-back appointments, classes, or meetings, keep a watch or clock in an easily visible place. Looking at your watch may feel rude but it’s less rude than being late and making someone wait for you. If you don't own a watch, it might be a worthwhile investment.
  2. Create a strategy for getting things done on time. One of the unexpected findings in the Waldun and McDaniel study was that some participants developed their own goals for making sure they left enough time for the trivia task. You might, for example, know that it generally takes you 10 minutes to wash your breakfast dishes. Use this as a guide to develop a “switch time” if your scrambled eggs stick to the pan more than you expected.
  3. Don’t fall prey to the temptation to do “one more thing” before you know you have to leave. The time estimation study pointed to the importance of “plan fidelity.” Decide ahead of time how long each phase of a task will take, whether it’s getting out the door on time or finishing up a project before you have to get to the next one.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Waldum, E. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2016). Why are you late? Investigating the role of time management in time-based prospective memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(8), 1049-1061. doi:10.1037/xge0000183

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