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The Real Reason Some of Us Are Chronically Late

Being late is stressful, but for many, it beats the alternative.

Key points

  • People are late because they don’t want to be early.
  • The solution to tardiness is to think about how to make being early more valuable.
  • Reframing being early as something valuable makes people feel like their time is being used constructively.
Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock

For a good percentage of Americans, three little words habitually accompany their entrance into a business meeting, gym class, dinner with friends, or a date:

“Sorry, I’m late.”

Does this sound like you? Much important work has looked at why some of us are chronically late. The truth is that there are many reasons why people just can’t get somewhere on time. But there seems to be one common thread running through the behavior of chronically late individuals that may be the most universal reason for their perpetual tardiness—and yet it is consistently overlooked:

People are late because they don’t want to be early.

For the punctually challenged, this basic motivation drives behavior whether consciously or unconsciously.

Most of us know people who are always on time because they hate being late. I fall into this category; in fact, I’m paranoid about being tardy. I get to places embarrassingly early, which sometimes requires me to park my car around the corner and wait surreptitiously just so others don’t notice the real time I arrived. (Sometimes I think that if I was a ninja, I'd still get to places dreadfully early, yet would be comforted by the fact that since I was a ninja no one could tell if I was there.)

Because people like me hate to be tardy, we are always on time. But just as we hate to be late, another cohort hates to be early. These anti-early birds really want to be punctual—they just prefer to be right on time.

Wanting to avoid being early, then, is a strong motivation for why many people are chronically late.

When you ask someone why they are perpetually late, they will often inform you that the typical or assumed reasons do not necessarily explain their habit. Even when they try to be organized, consider the time of others, or set an alarm, they still tend to be late. And they are usually behind by the same amount of time—five, 10, or 15 minutes—late enough that it isn’t detrimental to their event, but still annoying to those around them. Though desperately wanting to break the habit, the conflicting motivation to not be late or early poses a real problem.

It is hard to reconcile these two competing ideals.

So why does this second group hate to be early?

Reasons some people don't like being early

The most common reasons include:

  • It’s inefficient. Being early requires having to sit around with nothing to do. The waiting time is just short enough that you can’t get into any other project; as soon as you do, the time is up.
  • They hate the uneasiness of being early. They feel awkward and uncomfortable waiting. They might even feel as if others are watching and judging them, whether this is true or not. Arriving a few minutes early makes you feel proud and confident, but arriving too early can make you feel foolish. You fear others might think that you have no life aside from this event, and you don’t want people to think that your time isn’t valuable. Take the example of a date: If you get there a little early, that looks great. But if you arrive too early, suddenly you’re worried that you come across as desperate.
  • There is an opportunity cost associated with getting somewhere early. Just as someone else’s time is valuable and you want to respect it to be punctual, so too is your time valuable and you'd rather use it productively than wait around inefficiently.
  • Sometimes you do not want to be early to be polite. You may not want to disturb someone by getting there too soon—say, a friend’s dinner party—so you would rather get there a little late.

While many individuals see being early as a virtue, many others don’t. Earliness isn’t valued to them; it's a waste of time.

Time is money

An article in USA Today discussed the cost of tardiness for CEOs. One hypothetical example: If Sanford Weill, at the time the CEO of Citigroup, arrives 15 minutes late to a meeting with his four best-paid lieutenants, it costs the company $4,250, the price of the four employees’ time. (That was in 2002; just think what a similar late arrival could cost today.) Yet, the same argument can be applied to the cost of being early. If those four well-paid employees arrived 15 minutes before Weill got to the meeting, that still would have cost the company $4,250 in wasted time.

In both scenarios, time is money.

It is, of course, impossible to arrive on time each and every time. Since we cannot control external circumstances like traffic and family emergencies, the only way to be prompt is aiming to get to places a few minutes beforehand. That leaves us with the problem of motivation: How can an anti-early bird just bite the bullet and risk being early to be on time? (Often, when one gets to a place early, he or she decides, "Next time I will give myself less time to get here.”)

The solution to tardiness

The solution to actually fixing the habit, then, is not to think about ways to be on time but rather to think about how to make being early more valuable. That same USA Today article mentions that Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell gets to meetings a little early, and tries to make good use of that time. He says in the article, "I try to get to meetings a bit early so I can see what the mood of the team is and have an opportunity to interact informally before we get down to serious business.”

Reframing that early time as something valuable makes you feel like your time is being used constructively, whether for your own or for someone else’s benefit.

If you're trying to motivate someone else to stop being chronically late, remember that while Benjamin Franklin espoused the virtues of being early to bed and early to rise, there have always been others who agree instead with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said: “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.”

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