On Being Late

girl being late

Growing up I had a friend who was always late. I loved her (still do!), but I have to admit it drove me crazy. As I grew older, I came to realize that many people are chronically late. I’ve heard this tendency downplayed, rationalized, and excused, leading me to ask two questions:

  1. “Does being late really matter?” and,
  2. “If so, what can be done about it?”

Let’s look at these one at a time.

Does Lateness Matter?

In a nutshell, the answer is, “Yes, it does.” Intentional or not, recurrent lateness should not be discounted because:

* Time is a valuable asset

In the current fast-paced environment, time has become an extremely valuable commodity. In some cases, time is worth even more than money, hence the growth in the popularity of convenience products and services. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that when we are late, we may be wasting someone else’s time and/or causing him/her a difficulty.

* Being late minimizes our ability to handle the unexpected

I often repeat the phrase “Good things happen when you show up early.” Being early gives us the chance to respond to situations we haven’t anticipated. For example, arriving early to a presentation at which the audio/visual system isn’t working provides a window for developing a back-up plan. Similarly, leaving early for a class or commitment affords a cushion to peacefully absorb any extra minutes that a traffic jam might add to the trip.

* Lateness is perceived as inconsiderate and rude

Lateness is one of the most common causes of conflicts in relationships, whether personal or professional. A common excuse from people who are late is, “I didn’t mean to,” or, “I couldn’t help it.” While this may be true periodically, this explanation rings hollow over time. Many people work hard to be on time, perhaps at great cost. Therefore, rationalizing perpetual lateness comes off as selfish.

* Lateness damages self-esteem

If you frequently greet your friends & colleagues with,  “I’m so sorry I’m late!” you are apologizing. We don’t apologize for behavior we are proud of, only that which we regret. Being late makes a bad first impression and makes us feel badly about ourselves.


What Can Be Done About Lateness?

There are a variety of reasons why people are repeatedly late. In order to find the best solution, it is critical to identify the root issue.

=> If you are chronically late, but only by 5-10 minutes…

You are likely doing a fair job of managing your time because the period of lateness is consistent. At some point in the past, you may have given yourself permission (perhaps subconsciously) to be late. If you desire to change this habit, try giving yourself a new message. Tell yourself that your lateness has been damaging and that this is not what you want to be known for going forward. Replace the late habit with the goal of being out the door 10 minutes early. Bring along something pleasurable to do should you arrive ahead of time (e.g. a favorite magazine), and reward yourself for meeting your goal over time.

=> If you are frequently and frustratingly late by varying amounts of time…

Multiple factors may be at play.

One is that you may be underestimating the time you need. This is common with ADD and similar executive functioning challenges, which make it hard to keep track of time. One tool that might help is the Time Timer. This product allows you to easily see the passage of time. Using this tool will assist you in getting a more realistic understanding of how long various tasks actually take (e.g. taking a shower, drying your hair, making breakfast, pumping gas, etc.). It is possible that you simply think you are moving faster than you are. Once you know how much time various steps require, it will be easier to avoid the temptation to “squeeze in” just one more thing because you will know without a doubt that this will make you late.

Another problem could be that you are easily distracted and end up wasting time on ancillary activities, such as checking email or surfing the Internet. If this sounds familiar, considering employing smartphone alarms, which you can set to repeatedly “count down” to the time you need to leave. Don’t feel silly if you need to set them to go off every 10 minutes in the morning. The idea is to bring your brain back into focus on what you need to be doing to get out the door, and nothing else.

You may also run late because you leave the “getting ready” process to the last minute. In other words, when you should be leaving you instead are running around trying to remember everything you need. One trick here is to establish a “staging area” where you put everything you will need when you step out the door. It is a good idea for each family member to have a space like this, because often we think of things we need to bring at random moments. Anytime you remember something you need, immediately put it in the staging area (or at least write it down and put the note in the staging area). Before you go to bed, check this space to be sure it is complete. You can also hang a checklist nearby to help you remember the things you take each day (e.g. keys, wallet, phone, etc.)

A fourth possibility is that others are making you late. This is common for parents. Maybe you are standing by the door and ready to go, but your child isn’t dressed, or is trying to find his library book, or is scrambling for her gym shoes. Children struggle with the same time management issues as adults, so consider if any of the scenarios above may be unfolding and try some of the tools with them as well. In addition, do what you can to establish an “on time-friendly” environment by:

  • Preparing as much as you can the night before (set out clothes, make lunches, pack the backpack)
  • Keeping needed supplies close to the door (e.g. hairbrushes, toothbrushes, sneakers, keys, etc.). Sending a child upstairs often equates to lost time.
  • Limiting distractions (e.g. electronic devices and TV) in the morning. A playlist that repeats the same series of songs each day can end up serving as a background “timer.”
  • Perform tasks in the same order each day, so children can develop a routine. For example, get up, open the shade, put on clothes, eat breakfast, brush hair, brush teeth, put on your shoes and stand by the door.

*     *     *     *     *

Chronic lateness rarely serves us well. If this has been a lifelong struggle, consider bringing in some outside help to customize a plan to get you on track and on time.

Have you discovered any tricks that help you to avoid being late?

30 thoughts on “On Being Late”

    1. Children remind us that we are no longer in control of our time. This can be particularly rough for people who used to be very timely, and now are late because of others. I don’t meant to oversimplify either the challenges or solutions, but there are some tips and tools that can at least help. Have a great week, Janine!

  1. When I was a supervisor, I had a staff member who was always late. I offered to adjust her work hours so she could start later and either take a shorter lunch or finish later, but she said no, because she would then arrive even later. I don’t remember how we resolved the situation, but it was very perplexing for me, as I was the type to always arrive early. (I say “was” because that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. I think I got tired of waiting for people.)

  2. I love your tips for parents to help your children be on time. More than ever, I believe that being on time or early is an important skill to teach or children so that as they grow up being on time will be an ingrained habit. I agree that being early gives you time to relax into what’s next and be truly present in the current activity.

    1. I am chronically early. Usually I try and find a quiet place to wait and then I check email or Facebook or just stare out the window of my car and breathe:)

  3. I love your phrase, “Good things happen when you show up early.”! Even if I’m silly early to something (which happens a fair amount), I can always use the time to follow up on an email, send a quick text, look something up, or offer to help (for instance when someone is setting up for a meeting). I’ve never had a problem when I’m early, but I’m super embarrassed and stressed if I’m ever late.

    1. Same here, Sara. I just feel so much more at peace when I am early. I always have something to read, or even just enjoy praying or looking out the window and enjoying the view!

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, Liana. It is actually a fairly complex topic, and I know I am only scratching the surface. Important to acknowledge that it isn’t only an issue of laziness, although that can be at play.

      1. Thanks, Hazel. This is a big topic, with many permutations. Nonetheless, there are some good tools that anyone could try to help make progress:)

  4. I find that when my clients are chronically late, I take it more personally than when my friends are late. I guess because I have to manage my time to work with them and have allotted for different clients and now have to rearrange my entire schedule to fit them in.

    On the other hand, I find that I don’t mind being 5-10 minutes late when it is a casual thing I am doing like meeting up with someone. It rarely happens these days because I love to get out of the house and meet up with people. I found that I would stress myself out to just meet up with someone casually. So I now tell them a range. I will be there between 9:00 AM and 9:30 AM. That way I don’t get stressed and if I am closer to 9:30, that’s OK.

    Great post, Seana.

    1. That’s a great suggestion, Sabrina. I love the idea of being honest when we aren’t sure we can commit to a specific time, and perhaps it is casual enough that it doesn’t really matter. Good to communicate this ahead of time, so someone isn’t fretting that the small window they set aside to meet with you is quickly evaporating!

  5. Wow. This rings so true for me! Growing up I was always late or at least right at the last minute. It was stressful but I didn’t really think about how it effected others. Then I married my Military husband and he opened my eyes! I realized that I was being inconsiderate of him when I made us late to a commitment of his. Now it really bugs me when others do it! Haha

    1. The military have great control in this area. I respect that so much. It is so true that when you start to realize how your behavior impacts others, including those you love, it does change your perspective. I do believe lateness is a habit for some people, and in those cases, it just takes an intentional decision to change.

  6. I’m so strange about lateness. In some instances, I’m a STICKLER. Like work and getting the kids to school or picking them up. If I showed up late to any of those things, people would thing something was wrong.
    And yet with social events, I’m also a tad late. It’s like I have trouble after hours with getting things done. This is evening social activities, of course.
    Tamara recently posted…Adorable & Tasty Mini Pop TartsMy Profile

    1. Someone else had a similar comment. I think that is interesting. You’ve got me thinking on this one, and how we may be assigning different values to these buckets of activities!

  7. I have known people like your friend as well and in fact just starting showing up late myself when going to meet her as she was almost always late if arriving on her own. We are all late sometimes, but I do think those who are often late could definitely use some of your tips as it is very frustrating for the rest of us 😉
    Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats recently posted…Finding Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona: Guide to Over 20 Gaudí Sites in Barcelona SpainMy Profile

    1. It really can damage a relationship. I would say this was one of the biggest stressors with one of my daughters. It was a relief when she was able to drive herself around, as we had almost daily conflicts about her lateness. I do think she’s gotten better since she’s been out of school and working on her own. Jobs tend to be less tolerant of lateness than friends & family!

  8. My SIL is a drill sergeant in the army. She says the unofficial army motto is: If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, it’s unacceptable. I’M pretty much early for most things!

  9. I tend to be just “on time” most of the time. I used to be really stressed when I was running late. Now because of the job I am in (during the day) I have learned to relax a bit. However, If I know someone is waiting for me, I am stressed and do not want to keep them waiting. I guess we do have more options of being in touch with people through social media now if we are running late. I really like the idea of being early and taking that time to breathe. I need to practice that.
    Kim recently posted…Three Keys to Starting the De-Cluttering ProcessMy Profile

    1. I get very distressed if I feel I am keeping someone waiting. A wise person once told me he always thanks people for their time. Whether their content was helpful or not, their time was a generous gift. I’ve never forgotten that!

  10. I think it’s incredibly disrespectful to be chronically late. You may not value your own time, but you should value family, friends and colleague’s valuable time. Always being late and chewing with your mouth open are deal breakers in my book (unless you have a good excuse for either and then I’m very understanding 🙂 ).
    Susan recently posted…Washi Tape Organizing That’s FreeMy Profile

    1. Agreed, Susan. When you value timeliness, it is hard to overlook and accept chronic lateness in others. Especially family members, with whom you may have had many conversations! It is important to ascertain if there are real stumbling blocks in place, and to address them. Otherwise, I agree that it helps to look beyond yourself, and acknowledge the damage that your lateness may be causing.

  11. Powerful post! This resonates with everyone. Either you are late or have a problem with those who are late.

    What I have learned is that being late is mainly about “the one last thing” that you think will only take “a minute” however really takes a lot of time. When you are about to do that “one last thing” get in the car instead.

    1. That is a simple, and powerful, mindset. I agree, that one last little thing typically takes too long. As we learned at conference, “Nothing takes a minute!”

  12. A train may be late, but a passenger must not. Very powerful post but least addressed. In our thinking, the most important person is excusable for being late since they handle more important assignments. Further, they can not be kept waiting as their time is more valuable.
    So VIP’s are making even trains to get detained, if they are late. Such is the attitude and understanding.
    No doubt we must value everyone’s time, but the feeling is one’s time is more valuable than the cumulative value of the rest of others.
    So children are taught to be on time and get punishment if late. Later, they see that there is no punishment as they grow up.
    Our entire life system is on time. Can day break be late or Sundays will arrive one day late? If not, why we are not on time?
    With our digital mobile gadget, we can introduce an app. calculating our late reporting habits. This must be erased from our habits.

    1. I feel the same way, Olive. It is so nice to have a few minutes to just breathe and gather my thoughts. If I am presenting, I feel peaceful being able to look around, find the restroom, etc. I never regret being early!

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