Feature Archive

Help for the Chronically Late

Experts explain why the key to being on time is understanding why you're always late.

By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Feature

Reviewed ByBrunilda Nazario,MD

New York lingerie designer Carolyn Keating was thrilled to land a job interview with Victoria's Secret. She knew that being on time was essential to making a good impression, but there was just one problem. "I had written down the address wrong. I meant to check it the night before on the computer, but I didn't." When Keating finally arrived at the correct address, she was 30 minutes late. "I felt embarrassed and it really flustered me," she tells WebMD. "I carried that insecure, worried, flustered energy throughout the interview." She didn't get the job.

Another time, Keating and several friends showed up 15 minutes late to a colleague's wedding. "The bride was already at the alter. She was basically saying 'I do' when we tumbled in, and it's hard for six or seven people to tiptoe in quietly. We were worried that we ruined the most important day of her life."

For some people, being on time seems nearly impossible -- no matter how important the event. They're always running out the door in a frenzy, arriving everywhere at least 10 minutes late. If this sounds like you, have you ever wished you could break the pattern? According to Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From the Inside Out, the first step is to make promptness a conscious priority.

"Look at the costs of being late and the payoffs of being on time," Morgenstern advises. She says it's important to recognize that being late is upsetting to others and stressful for the one who is late. "I think people's stress level is very high when they're late. They're racing, worried, and anxious. They spend the first few minutes apologizing. One of the payoffs of being on time is that you eliminate the stress of the travel time and you eliminate the time spent apologizing."

The Consequences of Being Late

The consequences of being chronically late run deeper than many people realize, according to psychologist Linda Sapadin, PhD, author of Master Your Fears. "You're creating a reputation for yourself, and it's not the best reputation to be establishing. People feel they can't trust you or rely on you, so it impacts relationships. It also impacts self-esteem."

Once you feel motivated to make a change, Morgenstern says the next step is to figure out why you're always late. The reason can usually be classified as either technical or psychological.

Technical Difficulties

"If you're always late by a different amount of time -- five minutes sometimes, 15, or even 40 minutes other times -- it is likely that the cause is technical," Morgenstern tells WebMD. "That means you are not good at estimating how long things take," whether it's drive times or routine activities like taking a shower.

Keating says she falls into this category. "It's a case of bad planning, of thinking you need less time than you actually do."

The solution, Morgenstern says, is to "become a better time estimator." She suggests keeping track of everything you do for a week or two. "Write down how long you think each thing will take and then how long it actually took." This will help you find a pattern, so you can adjust your time estimates.

Keating says this strategy is helpful. "You have to be realistic about how long certain things take, especially things you do routinely. If you know it takes 20 minutes to blow dry your hair, allow yourself 20 minutes to blow dry your hair," she says, "and leave a little extra time for those days when your hair is uncooperative."

Learning to Say 'No'

Another technical difficulty for some people is the inability to say "no" to additional commitments when they're short on time. You might be a good time estimator, Morgenstern explains, but "your best-laid plans get waylaid when someone asks you for something and you can't say 'no.'"

The solution to this problem is to "practice catchphrases," Morgenstern tells WebMD. Learn to defer or decline requests by saying, "I would love to help, but I'm on a deadline" or "I'm meeting people in half an hour. I can help you tomorrow."

Choosing to Be Late

"If you are literally always 10 minutes late, it's psychological," Morgenstern says. "You're arriving exactly when you want. The question is 'why?'"

Sapadin says the answer depends on your personality type. "For some people, it's a resistance thing," she tells WebMD. "It's a carryover of rebelliousness from childhood. They don't want to do what other people expect them to."