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?

28 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be “On Time?””

  1. I totally was a stickler for being on time before having kids, but I admit at least when my girls were really little I had trouble being on time. It has gotten much better though now that they are older. Plus, the virtual meetings are truly a godsend for being on time as it does help hold me (myself and I) more accountable for staying and keeping on task to be on time. But thanks for the great tips and advice here still.

    1. Timeliness seems to be higher on the priority list with virtual meetings for sure. Fewer excuses for being late, since you just need to log in. There are definitely plusses. Agree that kids are often the “fly in the ointment” when it comes to timeliness.

  2. I value the idea of being on time. I like to be on time, and I appreciate it when others are too. But I also understand that people have very different ideas about time and how they manage their own time. Like you, I aim to have a cushion between appointments and commitments to arrive relaxed and without rushing. I hate to rush. Because I also like to hyperfocus when I’m working, I use a timer for cueing me when it’s time to transition to the next thing. The timer helps me focus intently and have confidence that it will “ding” when it’s time to stop.

    1. I have a couple of people in my family with that ability to hyper focus. I’m not one of them. I’m always distracted, and aware of the time. I love the idea of using the timer to keep on track. I do use one when I’m presenting because I find it really helps me pace myself!

  3. I’ve always liked reading about being on time. And all the excuses.
    I’m late because… ‘No, you’re late because you’re running late.’

    Still there are those times when you’ve left extra time, then something happens, beyond your control. It happens even with the best of intentions and from the most prompt people.

    It is so disrespectful when someone doesn’t regard another person’s time as important. Your client did everything right. She gave you fair warning ahead of time so that you would not be sitting waiting for her. And wasting your own time.

    I do think you hit it on the nose when you said you may pack on an extra thing to do that creates a time trap. That’s because you don’t realize how long something may really take to complete. I tell my clients, and I do this to myself, to ask yourself, “What must get done and what can wait?” as you’re preparing to leave. “What’s the most important thing for me to do right now?” It should be heading out the door.

    1. I appreciate it when people show respect for my time too, Sabrina. When people feel respected, they feel safe to be open and more likely to contribute to whatever needs to be done!

  4. This is such important advise. It is so frustrating to be waiting for someone without any idea of why they are late. It eventually leads to frustration, worry or anger. It’s extremely rude to just show up late unless you have no way to notify the other party of your problem. I agree with you observation that it is easy to try to work in one more thing before you leave. I have come to a decision that even if it is a little too early to leave that I never try to do anything at all and just either leave earlier or patiently watch the clock. Thanks for pointing this out.

    1. I just leave early, figuring I might have that window because something I don’t know about might be waiting for me that would otherwise make me late. I’d rather avoid the time pressure and just sit in my car waiting. It’s not so bad to listen to a couple of songs, pray, read, or do something else while I wait!

  5. Your list is very complete, Seana. I don’t think there’s anything to add. I appreciate your comments, though. The way you laid this out – the expectation of being on time, and the showing of respect. These are such important points and can’t be over-stated. Finally, thanking people for their time is a beautiful consideration. I will sometimes put that at the end of a message when I’m asking someone to do or read something for me that will take them time. You have a wonderful way of completing explaining a concept. Great job!

  6. My brother is in the army and shared with me the military’s viewpoint on time which I’ve adopted: “When you’re early, you’re on time. When you’re on time, you’re late. When you’re late, it’s unacceptable.” Call me an early bird for this reason!

    1. I’m in total agreement with this philosophy. It not only benefits those with whom you are meeting, but the peace of not rushing benefits us as well. It puts us in the right place mentally to begin whatever we need to do.

  7. I love this. Such great suggestions. My husband is a rusher and often tries to squeeze in extra tasks which invariably take longer than anticipated. As you point out, it causes others inconvenience when they are left waiting and wondering, and it leaves him rushing. I love the way you broke this down and put it in perspective.

    1. That’s the thing about lateness, it impacts other people. It’s one flaw that can have far-reaching impact. Worth the effort to try and respect other peoples’ time!

  8. I usually leave for an appointment with more than enough time to commute. Then when I hit traffic I don’t worry about being late. If I arrive early, then I have a little extra time. Even if I sit in my car I enjoy a quiet moment, or check my social media or call a friend.
    When we are all going a hundred miles an hour, it’s nice to have some small bits of down time.
    Janet Schiesl recently posted…You Need These Punctuality Life HacksMy Profile

  9. These are all excellent points, but I think #7 is the most important. Without communicating, people who are inclined to be early will worry that they’ve misunderstood or arrived at the wrong time/place. The anxiety about having done something wrong, combined with the frustration of someone else disrespecting your time, can be a real mess.

    I was taught at a young age to follow all of your excellent advice, and then in college I lived in an international dorm, where cultural expectations were very different. While it was generally understood by everyone that a 10:10 class began at 10 minutes after 10 a.m., almost any other “time” was considered as a suggestion, and I was literally always the first person at any dinner, party, or event, even when I purposely tried to be “late” and arrived 10, 15, even 20 minutes past the appointed hour. In general, things in many other countries start later and start times are approximate, which often left people joking with one another about, “OK, 6 o’clock. Is that American 6 o’clock or are we talking [insert nationality here] time?” where people generally made fun of their own culture’s time-keeping.

    “The secret is to arrive early, but then wait for the proper moment to show up.” is so true. I think people have fears regarding the awkwardness of arriving too early. In the days before cell phones, that meant having a book or a magazine in the car so you could enjoy the pride of having arrived on time without the discomfort of knocking before the appointed hour or sitting alone in a restaurant too long.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Playing With Blocks: Success Strategies for Time Blocking ProductivityMy Profile

    1. That is such an interesting point about perceptions of timeliness in other countries! I can totally see how cultures around the world may define and understand timeliness in a different manner. I guess it all comes down to getting clear on what ‘on time’ means, wherever you are, and then applying the principles to that mindset. Very interesting!

  10. I am always grateful when I do run late that my friend or family have waited for me. It’s a good time to share how much you appreciate them and their flexibility.

    1. Gratitude rarely goes unappreciated, and a sacrifice of time is precious. Sometimes we are late, even when we do all we can not to be. In those moments, a bit of grace by the other party is a blessing indeed!

    1. I was just reading Julie’s comment about how the definition of “on time” differs across cultures, so I agree that it can be a bit of a moving target. All that matters is that both parties have the same perception, and then we can meet expectations and do whatever is necessary to show respect!

  11. Certainly, being “on time” is different these days, but no less important. I think the respect aspect is most important to me. And I love the idea of being realistic. I have spent the last four months being NOT realistic, when factoring in icy roads, a baby, etc. Now I’m better about knowing what I can do, and when, and for how long.

    1. I remember how having a baby greatly slowed me down. Lugging all the gear to the car, getting everyone strapped in, dealing with car messes, it all adds so much time. Just going to the grocery store took twice as long, so good to get a handle on what the “new normal” is when a baby arrives, and then plan accordingly.

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