Are you consistently late, no matter how hard you try to be on time? Whether it’s a delayed bus or an urgent project that makes you lose track of time, something always seems to get in the way.
The definition of late varies by culture, as does the importance of timeliness depending on the event (being late to a party might not be as important as being late to a work meeting). But research shows that repeatedly racing against the clock can take a toll on your brain and your relationships. It can lead you to miss context, for example, and feel out of sync with everyone who arrived on time. It’s likely frustrating for you, too. So then why does it keep happening, despite your best efforts?
The answer: There are some types of lateness that even a shortened commute (i.e. from your bedroom to your desk) can’t fix. Studies show that chronic lateness can be deep-rooted, making it a difficult habit to break. A host of underlying reasons, such as anxiety, distraction, and other psychological states, drive chronic lateness for 20 percent of the population. When these behaviors are subconscious (we do them without realizing that we’re doing them), they can feel out of our control, which makes them harder to change.
The first step is to shed light on the real reasons you run late, so you can confront them and get ahead of the clock, one step at a time. Do any of the following excuses sound familiar? If so, here’s what to do.
1. You didn’t feel a sense of urgency … until now.
If you feel unmotivated to move until the last possible second, you likely thrive in crisis mode and rely on an adrenaline rush to get you out the door (and to meet deadlines).
Research suggests that procrastination happens when we fail to identify with our “future self”—how our present actions will impact us in the future. To bridge that disconnect, pick a specific upcoming event and try to envision what will happen if you arrive late: How will you feel? How will others react? What will the challenges be? Use this foresight to create a sense of urgency … sooner.
2. You had to get “just one more thing” done before leaving.
You’re hyper focused on productivity and cringe at the thought of “wasting time,” but consistently find yourself late because you try to squeeze in as much work as possible before joining a meeting or logging off for the day. Sound familiar? If so, you might engage in what’s called magical thinking, or the planning fallacy, which means you underestimate the amount of time that it takes to perform tasks.
The truth: A minute is still a minute, regardless of how you spend it. You can’t stretch time, no matter how appealing that thought might be. To adjust this habit, author and management consultant Diana DeLonnzor recommends the following: “For one day, write down each task you have to do, and how long you think it will take. Time yourself as you go through your list, and write the actual time next to your estimate.”
Many people have certain time frames cemented in their brains that aren’t realistic, she says. “Just because once, five years ago, you made it to work in 12 minutes flat doesn’t mean it takes 12 minutes to get to work.”
3. You’d planned to be on time, but …
So the bus really was late this time. And you had to change your outfit because it was colder than you thought the last time. And okay, your dog needed to be taken out the time before that.
No matter how valid the reason, if you are planning on arriving exactly on time, you are likely going to run late. Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to everything. No exceptions. This way, you have insurance if you need to run back inside to grab an umbrella, or there’s construction on your usual route.
4. You really don’t want to go.
If you find yourself procrastinating and feel discomfort when you finally do start getting ready for an event, you may be experiencing anxiety―or even resentment―around it. So you do whatever you can to prolong the inevitable.
Avoidance tends to worsen anxiety, however. Instead of dwelling on the negative outcomes of an event, try visualizing your success before you get there, or write a list of positive purposes it serves. Sure, the meeting might be tedious, for example, but it will help clarify your priorities, making your work easier in the long run. If you feel like you’re “losing” valuable time at an event that you don’t enjoy, try carving out transition moments. Treat yourself to a coffee after the meeting, for example, or go for a walk just before.
Chronic lateness is a tough habit to break, especially when it’s rooted in complex reasons, which it so often is. But with self-awareness, you can start to experiment with being on time, even just once in a while, and feeling more in control of your time, too. You’ve already taken the first step.