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The Truth About Habitual Lateness

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We all know that one person who can’t be on time no matter what the circumstances. “They’d be late for their own funeral,” goes the expression. Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

An article from Pacific Standard quotes one expert, a licensed clinical social worker that specializes in this behavior:

There’s no single cause. Chronic lateness is a kind of end-product phenomena. People can have very different sorts of motives and patterns that lead them to be chronically late.

Waking Up Late

© Flickr user Ludosphere

Possible causes of tardiness, the piece explains, come from all kinds of sources:

  • The struggle to pay attention – If you’re doing something routine, such as leaving for work, some people only get motivated once they realize they aren’t going to arrive on time.
  • The power of distractions – If you have to walk out the door, don’t pick up a newspaper or make yourself a cup of coffee.
  • People-pleasers – It can be hard to end a phone conversation or wrap up a meeting if you want to make others happy. But taking too long to do that can make you late for your next appointment.
  • Sleep issues – If you’re not fully rested, you may hit the snooze button one too many times.
  • Chronic optimism – Some individuals assume that there will be no stoplights, no delays, and no problems. They give themselves less time because they assume everything will go well.
  • Arriving early is wasteful – Imagine showing up before everyone else. Then you have to wait around with nothing to do.

What’s worse is that because the problem is complex the answer isn’t easy:

Because there isn’t one root cause for lateness, there isn’t one solution either. If you are constantly late, you have to figure out why. If it’s distractions, remove them. If it’s being overly polite, toughen up. If it’s optimism, take a cold, hard look at how the world really runs. It’s a person-by-person problem, without a universal remedy.

This is bad news for people who are late, but it’s even worse for those of us who are waiting on everyone else. A scathing essay attacking the chronically tardy doesn’t mince words:

And it is not that we lead ‘busy lives’. That’s a given, we all do, and it’s a cop out to use that as an excuse. It’s simply that some people no longer even pretend that they think your time is as important as theirs. And technology makes it worse. It seems texting or emailing that you are late somehow means you are no longer late.


You are rude. And inconsiderate.


© Flickr user w00kie

This post is not an outlier. Another blogger writes that being late is unacceptable. A Forbes contributor insists that On Time is Late. And while people will say “it’s fine” when you apologize for the lateness of your arrival, they are not telling you the truth. It’s not fine. They would rather have you been on time.

What should be done? Here are some tips:

Plan to Be Early and Active

Always intend to be early to every appointment. A good rule of thumb is to be as early as the half travel time required to get there. If it’s a 10 minute walk; leave fifteen minutes early. If it’s a 20 minute taxi ride, plan to arrive by ten minutes till. If you think you need an hour to drive to the client’s office, structure your day so you can be in their parking lot thirty minutes before you get there.

And, have something to do while waiting. Bring a book. Be ready to catch up on emails. Hand write a few thank you cards. Be busy, and if the other person is running behind you can still do the work while you’re waiting.

Plan to End on Time

Just because someone else is running late doesn’t mean you should give them extra time at the end of your appointment. Wrap up when it’s time to wrap up. And make sure that they know how much time you have.

There’s no one secret to being on time, but being late impacts your reputation. It’s better to be twenty minutes early than one minute late. Do everything in your power to keep that promise.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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