What Does It Mean To Be “On Time?”

clock. it is a good idea to try and be “on time,” but what does this phrase really mean?
Image by Ruwad Al Karem from Pixabay

Most people acknowledge that it is a good idea to try and be “on time,” but what does this phrase really mean? Is it as simple as showing up at a specified time? Can it mean something else?

Recently I had a text from a woman with whom I was scheduled to have a virtual meeting.  We were planning to speak at 4:30pm on the following day, but she texted to let me know that she had a previous appointment on that same day, and she thought there was a fair chance she might be 5-10 minutes late. She asked if this would be ok with me. Fortunately, I was flexible, so I told her I was happy to oblige. As it turned out, she wasn’t late at all, so we were able to begin at 4:30 as originally planned.

As I reflected on this encounter, I realized that “on time” really implies two things:

FIRST… being on time means meeting an expectation.

SECOND... being on time is a way of showing respect to someone else.

In the example above, my expectation was that our call would begin at 4:30pm. When she texted me to inquire about a possible 5-10 minute delay, she met both qualifications for being on time.

FIRST… she reset my expectations for a start time.

SECOND… she respected me enough to not simply show up late.

Admittedly, the specific definition of “on time” varies from one setting to another. In professional settings, on time typically implies a sharp beginning at a specified time on the clock. Alternatively, social gatherings frequently assume that guests will gather “on or around” a given time. Whatever the situation, being on time is always about meeting expectations and showing respect. To achieve these worthwhile goals, here are a few tips for being on time.

9 Ways to Be “On Time”

1. Be realistic when setting expectations.

It is always our responsibility to be honest with ourselves and others about what we can (and cannot) accomplish in a given period of time. If we overpack our schedule or agree to show up at a specific time knowing we will likely be late, the responsibility for being tardy falls squarely on our own shoulders. Other people have no way of knowing that we are “squeezing them in,” nor should they bear the burden of our having poorly managed our own time. We can often avoid lateness simply by being more realistic with ourselves about what we can reasonably accommodate on the calendar.

2. Leave extra time in your schedule.

Even with great planning, unexpected developments will still arise. Rare are the days when every detail goes off exactly as planned. Babies spit up, traffic snarls, WiFi fails, emergencies pop up, etc. When we leave a bit of unplanned time in our calendar, we have a cushion for responding to these unanticipated challenges. When we book ourselves end-to-end, one small problem can cause the whole day to fall apart like a line of dominos.

3. Plan to arrive early.

One of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself is the peace of mind that comes with “early time.” Whenever I visit a client, I aim to arrive five to ten minutes early. If all goes according to plan, I end up having a few moments to check and delete emails, delete photos, breathe, read, or even just look out the window and listen to music. There is a calm that comes with knowing that I don’t need to rush.

The opposite feeling prevails when I’m running late. I am impatient with other drivers, tempted to drive too fast, and stressed about showing up late (which, as a Professional Organizer, is particularly embarrassing!).

Importantly, arriving early, and “walking/calling in early” are two different things. The secret is to arrive early, but then wait for the proper moment to show up. The extra time is a buffer for you and should not put pressure on any other parties involved.

4. Avoid last minute tasks that might make you late.

Often, we are tempted, when preparing to leave the house or get on a call, to squeeze in a quick task or two. This only works when the task has clear boundaries, such as carrying a belonging upstairs and putting it in the drawer, wiping down the countertop, or emptying a trash can. In contrast, tasks that have no natural boundary often cause us to lose track of time and be late. For example, when we look something up on the internet and then end up watching silly videos. Or, when we make a phone call that we thought would be quick, but then get stuck in a lengthy conversation.

5. Look ahead and “head off” possible conflicts.

Whenever we are adding items to our calendar, we need to be very mindful about what might interfere with our plans. Consider things such as:

  • Might a child or other dependent might need me at that time?
  • What existing commitments could run late and interfere with my ability to be on time?
  • Could weather or traffic make it hard for me to meet my commitment?
  • Might another person (an employer, a doctor, a colleague) keep me longer than I am expecting?
  • Will my access to a vehicle, a phone, or a computer be compromised by the need of another person in my space?

If/when you identify a possible issue, devise a plan to minimize its potential impact. Assign a backup caregiver, move another commitment to a different time, identify alternative routes for reaching a destination, set up a WiFi hotspot on your phone, etc.

6. Reset expectations if and when you perceive a potentially unsolvable conflict.

Whenever you suspect that no matter what you do, you might not be able to keep a commitment, immediately reach out to reset expectations with the other people involved. In the example above, my friend’s text came the day before our scheduled call. She explained the nature of her delay, how it might impact our meeting, and offered me the option of rescheduling. Her gesture showed that she valued my time and wasn’t just assuming that I would be content with beginning late. Never make assumptions about someone else’s time!

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate

One of the worst things we can do when we are running late is “go dark.” It is tempting to delay calling or texting when we are late because we are focusing our energy on making up lost time and arriving as quickly as possible. However, as anyone who has sat on an airplane waiting to find out why they aren’t taking off knows, frustration levels rise whenever people don’t know what is going on.

If, in spite of all your best planning, you are running late, do what you can to let people know what is going on and the impact it is having. Give a realistic estimate of how long you will be delayed so they can adjust their own plans. Perhaps they will have time to go get a cup of coffee or make a call. Maybe you will be so late that the call or meeting will need to be rescheduled. Avoid leaving others hanging, wondering when you will be showing up.

8. Apologize when you are late.

When you show up late for a meeting, call, or appointment, apologize to everyone involved. We often try to explain our lateness, which is sometimes appropriate, but regardless of what slowed us down, we still wasted someone else’s time. They deserve an apology.

9. Thank people for their time.

In this busy world, time is one of the most valuable assets people have. When others share it with us, we should be appreciative. Thanking people for the time they have spent with you is a way of acknowledging that time is a precious commodity.

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How much do you prioritize being “on time?” What else might you add to this list?