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"I’m Always Late"—How to Change That

Three important factors that contribute to chronic lateness

As a therapist, I’ve heard the complaint, “I’m always late” many, many times. By becoming aware of three important factors that contribute to chronic lateness, you just might become one of those people who is always on time.

1) Not being realistic about time

The first and most compelling factor that that contributes to being late is not being realistic about time. Most people grossly underestimate how long it takes to do things or get somewhere. You think that it takes a certain amount of time to prepare for the day or for an event when in fact, it takes a lot more time than you thought. Let’s take, for example, getting to work on time. What happens is this. Let’s say that you need to be at work by 9 o’clock and so you get up at 7. You figure that it takes five minutes for a shower, a half hour to dry your hair, put on makeup, shave or whatever it is that you do in the morning and then an hour travel time. Sounds like plenty of time, or so you think. Sure, assuming you do nothing else. But we humans get distracted, we dilly dally or mope around just because. When we first wake up, it’s pretty common to move in slow motion. We stop and look at something, we pause to listen to television or the radio, get totally involved with reading email, linger over coffee, think, zone out, have a conversation etc. etc. In our minds, those things don't get factored into the estimation of how long it takes to get ready. Let’s not forget “I have nothing to wear,” and trying on several combinations of clothing to finally settle on what looks good. That can easily take about a half hour. And the shirt that needs ironing, the button that needs to be sewn, deciding on whether to wear a hat...all those things take time. Therefore you really have to increase the time you allot yourself to get ready.

Now let’s look at travel time. There are way too many variables when it comes to travel and if you’re getting places late, you are probably estimating travel time based on the one time that everything went along without a glitch: the bus or train came exactly on time and there were no delays. How often does that happen? Not often in New York City where getting stuck behind a garbage truck, for example, can make it take over half an hour to go one city block. Then you need to factor in the stop you make to get coffee, which can vary in wait time. Or running into someone and stopping to chat. We seldom factor in the things that we did not plan on happening. So the first thing you need to do to be on time is to overestimate the preparation and travel time. I would factor in minimum of a half hour to an hour more.

2) How well do you sleep?

The second factor to consider with respect to lateness: How well do you sleep? Many people don't sleep well at all, and it reflects in how difficult it is for them to get up in the morning. Someone who has slept well moves at a different speed than someone who is tired or exhausted. I would suggest looking really closely at your sleeping habits and review your sleep hygiene. Sleep deprivation is a huge contributing factor to lateness. Do you go to bed at a time that allows for a decent number of hours of sleep? You'd be surprised at how many people don't do the simple math. For example, going to sleep at midnight and waking up at six does not equal the eight hours of sleep needed to function. That simply isn't going to happen unless you go to sleep in time to get the number of hours of sleep that you need. It translates into pushing the snooze button many times and then rushing to get ready and again, not factoring in the time you drag yourself to the kitchen or shower at the speed of a slug.

3) Ambivalence about where you are going

The third factor to consider when you are chronically late is what are you late for. Do you really want to be there? There are some complicated emotions involved in doing things and being somewhere. If you hate your work or resent doing something, you may find yourself never or rarely getting there on time. You need to reflect on whether your lateness is isolated to some specific event or person. For example: When I have to go to my in-laws for dinner, I'm always late. I wonder why? I'm always late for staff meetings, even if that’s out of character for me. I wonder why?

So next time you stress about being late, think about whether you are realistically allotting enough time to get ready and enough time for travel, whether you are well rested and whether you have any ambivalence about where you are going. Some attention to those factors might actually get you there on time!

More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
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More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today