I Am Almost Always Running Late, so I Asked a Psychologist What to Do

Updated 04/06/18
How to Be More Punctual
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True story: Shortly before I moved into my current apartment, my roommate-to-be (who also happens to be one of my best friends) told me that one of the things she most anticipated about living together was to "finally see what the hell takes you so long all the time." It's been two months since she started witnessing my chronic lateness firsthand, and she'd probably tell you that she still has no insight into this terrible, no good, very bad habit—and that's probably because I don't even have a clue how it got so bad.

I am that friend who tells you she's "on her way!" when she's still scrambling to put her makeup on, the one who always fails to account for traffic and rushes into the bar, completely frazzled, to meet you for the drink we were supposed to order 20 minutes ago. I consider the fact that I've never missed a flight or a meeting to be something of a small miracle, if not indicative that I am technically capable of being on time. No one needs to tell me that my defiance of any kind of punctuality is rude or inconsiderate—I know these things.

And it's not for lack of trying: I pick out my outfit the night before and I try to leave 10 minutes earlier. Still, I find myself scrambling as the clock runs down, searching for my keys and my phone and my ChapStick even as I can sense the growing disappointment of the person or people waiting for me.

It's an interesting phenomenon in that I am someone who otherwise cares very much that others see me as polite and respectful—and, frankly, as a fully functioning adult. When I'm running late, I am not unbothered or apathetic; to the contrary, I am painfully aware that I am wasting someone else's time and that this alone could reflect badly on how I'm perceived as a person. Nonetheless, the habit remains—which has made me start to wonder if there's something deeper at play.

It turns out I might be on to something. "Sometimes habitual lateness is simply a reflection of poor organisation and planning skills," says Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, a psychologist who treats patients via telehealth app LiveHealth Online. But, she says, those organisation skills don't exist in a vacuum. They're an extension of our psychological disposition—and there could be a number of factors that shape this particular habit.

Keep reading to find out more about what contributes to habitual lateness and how to work toward being more punctual.

What's your lateness profile?

Pinpointing your own general tendencies and disposition is the first step to addressing this specific issue. And while we're all obviously very complex, multidimensional individuals, Henderson notes that there are some common psychological profiles that could help explain your habitual lateness. Tag yourself:

The Idealist: "This person underestimates how long getting dressed and traveling to their destination will take, or never factors in the many possible hiccups along the way, such as forgetting to have ironed a shirt or parking troubles," says Henderson. "They think they need less time than they actually do and consistently believe that commute conditions will be ideal, all green lights the entire way, despite the universe proving otherwise time and time again."

The "Can't Say No": This profile overlaps with the idealist in that someone who overextends their daily agenda isn't being realistic about their time—which can ultimately backfire and waste the time of others, too. "They have a hard time saying no to things that come up and make them late, or they're trying to fit too many things into a period of time," says Henderson.

The Easily Frazzled: If planning and efficiency aren't your strong suits, the thought of taking time to prepare or adjust your behavior might feel overwhelming—especially if the event itself is a source of stress, like an important interview or a blind date. (And if it's something more innocuous, you reason, then why bother stressing yourself out?)

The Rebel: Whether it's conscious or not, for you, tardiness is a small act of resistance. "Someone who does not like doing what others expect of them may be chronically ten minutes late," says Henderson.

The Adrenaline Junkie: "Those who function best under pressure or in crisis cannot seem to get themselves motivated without an adrenaline rush of a fast approaching timeline," says Henderson. That casual coffee with a friend? Not exactly a pressing deadline—even if you know you should probably see it that way.

The "Better Late Than Early": One of my (always punctual) co-workers told me that the prospect of being the last one somewhere gives her severe anxiety, after which I realised that I have the opposite problem: Waiting alone makes me severely uncomfortable, especially if it's for someone I don't know that well or at all. (And yes, I'm painfully aware of the irony of this mindset.) "Some may view lateness as a way of asserting power and control," says Henderson, "and this is driven not by a sense of personal power or arrogance, but instead by fear and insecurity. Underlying this behavior is a sense that others do not find them to be important, and so they operate in a way as to impose themselves on a situation."

To be clear, the psychological reasons behind your own lateness might not be limited to these simplified profiles, and it's also quite likely that you identify with more than one. (I'm definitely a little bit of the idealist, adrenaline junkie, and "better late than early.") But the point is to look past the habit itself and get curious about the deeper issues that might exacerbate it—that way, you can start to address it in a more efficient manner.

First things first: Know that it doesn't make you a bad person

Most of the "advice" I've received in this arena falls somewhere along the lines of "get your act together and stop being so rude." And while "it's not my fault!" isn't exactly the right rebuttal, know that a struggle with punctuality doesn't make you an innately inconsiderate or malicious person. In fact, if you're anything like me, you feel really guilty about it and wish you could do better.

"Regardless of the cause of habitual lateness, the behavior will frequently cause the offender anxiety and distress," says Henderson. "They realize how problematic their behaviour is, how disrespectful it can be to others, and the negative impact it has on the way that others view them."

The issue is that when we don't know a) where the habit stems from or b) how to address it, it just feeds into this cycle of lateness to anxiety to guilt and back again. We're flustered that we're always late and flustered that we can't fix it.

But you already took the first step in identifying the key reasons you might struggle with being on time. Next, it's time to figure out how to apply that knowledge to help undermine the habit.

Play pros and cons

The purpose of this exercise is to, again, establish your personal state of the union: Get clear about why you think you're late all the time, as well as the perceived benefits and implications to your life and mindset. "You may benefit from a friend or family member chiming in as well, even if it stings a bit to hear what they have to say," says Henderson.

Some things you might consider asking yourself: How do I feel in the time leading up to an appointment? How do I feel when I arrive late? How does it seem like other people react? Does it seem like my relationships are strained at all as a result? Be brutally honest with yourself as you write down your answers, and that might be enough to motivate you to start addressing the habit.

Re-crunch the numbers

"Reevaluate how long your routines realistically take," says Henderson. "You may have made it to work that one time in 12 minutes flat, but the reality is that it almost always takes 25 minutes, so plan for at least 25 minutes every single time. Spend a week or so logging how long it takes for you to do each of your daily tasks, from showering to getting dressed to driving to work and parking. Once you do that, start rescheduling your days and weeks to account for this. Build in a lot of extra time and stick to that schedule." And if it seems like a daunting task, remember that you'll be gaining that time back in spades by establishing a more efficient schedule.

Rethink your downtime

If arriving early facilitates a certain amount of anxiety, Henderson recommends reclaiming that time as your own, rather than anticipatory period for someone else. "Plan activities you can do for when you have some unexpected free time, even just waiting a few minutes for a friend to arrive, like reading an article that has piqued your interest or cleaning out your inbox," she says. "Practice thinking differently about this bit of extra time so that you consider it a luxury, a gift, a bonus where you can sit back and take a few breaths.

It may be uncomfortable to do so at first, but practicing being alone for a bit can be a worthwhile "

The change won't happen overnight—if we could flip our habits that quickly, they wouldn't be habits in the first place. But remember that you're doing this not to get back into your friends' good graces, but to take ownership over your own life. (Still: Bonus points for happier friends.)

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