"I'm always late, I'm always late, and it's not because I procrastinate."
- The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland
Some of us have a pattern of being late for appointments,
social events, classes, and project deadlines. No matter
how hard we try, no matter how strong our resolve to be on
time, it just doesn't happen. We are always late. Researchers
estimate that 15 to 20 percent of the population is afflicted
with chronic tardiness. Thankfully, with some self-examination, motivation, and practice, people who suffer from this
affliction can deal with it successfully and learn to be on
The problem of tardiness affects all portions of the population equally - young and old, male and female, the wealthy
and the poor. Research shows that people who are chronically late score lower on tests that measure nurturance, self-
esteem, and self-discipline, and score higher on measures of
anxiety and distractibility. Another finding from research is
that people who are consistently late underestimate the passage of time.
If you are a late-comer to appointments, you are probably
familiar with the embarrassment you feel when people, all
of whom seem to be able to get there before you, begin to
see you as a problem. You know well the jolt of anxiety
that comes as you walk into a room late and notice glances
between those who have arrived on time, and perhaps the
dreaded rolling of eyes. You know the humiliation of being
the target for someone's sarcasm - "Well, we're glad you
could join us." You know the experience of making up
excuses. "The traffic held me up." "I had to take an important phone call and the other person wouldn't stop talking."
"I had a family emergency." "I couldn't find my keys."
But the excuses only work a few times - and then the
raw truth sets in. People learn not to take you seriously
because, frankly, they feel that you don't take them seriously. If you did, you would be there on time. People can
see through the excuses, especially if these excuses are
part of a repetitive pattern,
and they resent
Chronic tardiness affects not
only the way
others see you,
but also the way
in which see
yourself. It compromises your
Our culture encourages tight schedules and gives timeliness a high priority. Industrialized nations value
productivity, discipline, achievement, and the coordination
of activities. North Americans, the Japanese, the Swiss,
and the Germans all place a high value on being on time.
To deviate from these values is to invite resistance from
others. These values are not universally found across all
cultures, however. Indeed, in some less technologically
advanced societies, there is a different concept of time,
and their languages don't provide words for hours, minutes and seconds. Hispanic societies traditionally have a
siesta time during the afternoon - a couple of hours to take
a nap. And even in England, there was historically a time
for a leisurely afternoon cup of tea, although this custom
is fading as the British become more highly scheduled. In
some societies, being "on time" is defined flexibly. Invite
people to your dinner party at 7:00, and expect them to
start rolling in at 8:00 or 9:00. This would hardly work,
however, in our society, where everything moves like
Experts recognize that the problem of tardiness usually
has no single or simple cause. Instead, it is a symptom of
complex underlying issues that often manifest themselves
in other areas of the person's life as well. Several causes
of chronic lateness have been identified, and most people
find that two or more of these conditions account for their
consistent tardiness. Consider the following causes of tardiness to see if you can
come up with a strategy for understanding and dealing with the problem.
Many people with a lateness problem rationalize it
away - they come up with an explanation for their
lack of punctuality every time. The explanations might
focus on external circumstances, like the traffic. Or they
might blame the other person ("Gee, I was only fifteen
minutes late. So why is this person so angry with me?
This other person must really have a problem with their
anger."). Or they might engage in denial ("Yes, I know
I'm late this time, but I don't really have a problem.").
They may even minimize the seriousness of the problem
("Sure, I know I was half an hour late for my presentation
and people had to wait, but they probably didn't mind.
After all, we need to be flexible.").
Unfortunately, rationalizing the problem away by finding
excuses prevents you from addressing the difficulty and
making headway in correcting it. By using rationalization
to deal with the anxiety you might otherwise feel when
you are late, you blind
yourself to the impact
your lateness has on
other people. And it
leads to a distorted
definition of yourself
- by rationalizing,
you will continue to
think of yourself as
a thoughtful, considerate person, even
though your behavior
indicates exactly the
opposite, especially to
other people. Rationalizing prevents us
from seeing the reality of a situation.
To Much To Do
Our society places a great premium on staying busy.
Busy people are seen as more productive and successful. You may believe that you must be productive at
all times and that if you are not busy, you must be wasting
time. You try to squeeze as many activities as possible into
the time you have available. To arrive early for a meeting or appointment would mean just sitting there, doing
nothing, and that would be unacceptable. So you strive to arrive exactly on time - but then you find several little jobs
to do before you leave the house (taking out the garbage,
sweeping the front porch, watering the seedlings). And your
plan to get there on time is now gone. You are late again.
People who need to stay busy claim that constant activity
makes the day go by faster. They believe that they are living life to the fullest or that they are more successful than
other people. Studies of the natural cycles of our bodies,
however, our biorhythms, suggest that continuously staying
busy simply creates unneeded stress. Nature calls for us to
intersperse busy periods with down time in a cyclical pattern throughout the day. Arriving a few minutes early to a
meeting, sitting with nothing to do, gives us some time to
reflect on the day and to sort things through. It gives us a
rest so that we can then focus more clearly on the meeting.
Some of us are unable to get going unless we have a
deadline. When we are running late, our anxiety builds,
the adrenaline flows, and we feel fully alive. Tardiness
is a way of combating the lethargy we experience during
the day. An adrenaline rush is exciting, to a point - our
thoughts seem to clear and our actions become precise. We
imagine that we are functioning at our best. Unfortunately,
the reinforcement that comes from this frenzied state perpetuates our problem with lateness. It feels good, as if we
are living in the moment, and we want to do it again and
Research indicates that stimulation seeking may be a hereditary characteristic. There is a gene linked to the production
of brain chemicals associated with the feelings of euphoria
and pleasure that are released under conditions of excitement. So, some people seem to need more stimulation than
others. Being late, however, is only one way of achieving
this stimulation. You can learn other, more constructive
ways to enliven your experiences - and they have fewer
social consequences than tardiness. A regular exercise program is one way of doing this.
Lack of Self-Discipline
Some of us find it difficult to change whatever we are
doing at the time. If we are sleeping, we want to continue to sleep. If we are reading, we don't want to put the
book down. If we are working on a project, we hate to put
it aside to do something else. Breaking our momentum is
stressful. We struggle everyday between doing what we
feel like doing and doing what we know we should do.
We seem to want both. Ironically, some people who lack
the self-discipline to be on time are highly disciplined in
other areas of their lives, so it might be hard for them to
accept the fact that they need to work on self-discipline
- in other words, accept limitations, consequences and
boundaries. There is comfort to be found within a more
structured life. The unstructured existence, although it
may feel pleasant, can carry a huge price.
Self-discipline in adulthood is often a reflection of how
we learned to manage responsibilities in childhood. The
expectations learned within our families as we grew up
influence the way we structure our activities in adulthood.
Did we learn to make up our beds everyday, to pick up
after ourselves, to get homework assignments in on time?
(Conversely, were these tasks so formidable, or even used
as punishment, in childhood, that we gave them up altogether once we left home and felt we could finally take it
Some Other Reasons for Lateness
There are several additional factors that might be associated with a person's problems with punctuality.
If you are distractible, have difficulty with
focusing, or have problems with attention, you might be prone to tardiness. For
example, people with attention deficit disorder sometimes have problems with their
Anxiety or the fear of having panic attacks
may dissuade some people from getting to
places on time.
Depression saps our energy, and this may
make punctuality difficult.
Some people play a power game may have
trouble engaging in positive actions, such
as getting to their destination on time.
A consultation with a professional therapist can help to
clarify the causes of tardiness - and it is a positive
first step in conquering a problem that holds many good
What Can You Do To Become More Punctual?
As we have seen, problems with punctuality can have several different causes. The most effective strategy for
dealing with this problem is to work with a professional psychotherapist. In a safe, confidential, and supportive setting, you can explore the various causes of your tardiness and come to understand why it has become
a problem. You and your therapist can also devise a strategy for changing this problematic habit. You will know
that you are not doing this alone and that an experienced professional is behind you all the way. With a positive
attitude, a willingness to change, and some motivation, you should be able to have a successful outcome.
Here are just a few general guidelines that might be adopted for dealing with punctuality problems -
MONITOR YOUR TARDINESS. Keep a journal
of times you were late and by how many minutes.
Keep track of the excuses you used.
TALK TO FRIENDS AND FAMILY about your
problem. See what they have to say.
UNDERSTAND THE EXPERIENCE OF
OTHER PEOPLE who had to wait for you. How
do you think they felt?
CARRY A TIMER to see how long it actually
takes to get where you want to go.
PLAN TO ARRIVE EARLY - not right on time
and certainly not late. Use that time before a
meeting to relax and review how you feel.
SUBSTITUTE OTHER WAYS OF ACHIEVING EXCITEMENT
if you enjoy the adrenaline
rush of being under a deadline.
IMPROVE YOUR SELF-DISCIPLINE by giving up some of your comforts (e.g., making the
bed everyday, giving up that second cup of coffee
before leaving the house, etc.). Learn that you
operate more effectively in the world by using a
structured approach where you meet challenges
STICK TO A SET DAILY SCHEDULE in order
to add structure to your life. And organize your
home, your office - and your life.