Always Late? 7 Tips to Arrive on Time

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

Feeling as though you’re always running twenty minutes behind schedule is an unhappy feeling. Having to rush, forgetting things in your haste, dealing with annoyed people when you arrive … it’s no fun.

If you’re chronically late, what steps can you take to be more prompt? That depends on why you’re late. The first step is to identify the problem – then you can see more easily what you need to change.

There are many reasons you might be late, but some are particularly common. Are you late because…

1. You sleep too late? If you’re so exhausted in the morning that you sleep until the last possible moment, it’s time to think about going to sleep earlier. Many people don’t get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation is a real drag on your happiness and health. I’ve become a sleep nut since I started my happiness project. Getting enough sleep is really important.

2. You try to get one last thing done? Apparently, this is a common cause of tardiness. If you always try to answer one more email or put away one more load of laundry before you leave, here’s a way to outwit yourself: take a task that you can do when you reach your destination, and leave early. Tell yourself that you need that ten minutes on the other end to read those brochures or check those figures.

3.  You under-estimate the commute time? You may tell yourself it takes twenty minutes to get to work, but if it actually takes forty minutes, you’re going to be chronically late. Have you exactly identified the time by which you need to leave? That’s what worked for me for getting my kids to school on time. We have a precise time that we’re supposed to leave, so I know if we’re running late, and by how much. Before I identified that exact time, I had only a vague sense of how the morning was running, and I usually thought we had more time than we actually did. My daughter goes into near-hysterics if we’re late, so that motivated me to get very clear on this issue.

4.  You can’t find your keys/wallet/phone/sunglasses? Nothing is more annoying than searching for lost objects when you’re running late. Designate a place in your house for your key items, and put those things in that spot, every time. I keep everything important in my (extremely unfashionable) backpack — and fortunately a backpack is big enough that it’s always easy to find. My husband keeps his key items in the chest of drawers opposite our front door.

5.  Other people in your house are disorganized? Your wife can’t find her phone, your son can’t find his Spanish book, so you’re late. As hard as it is to get yourself organized, it’s even harder to help other people get organized. Try setting up the “key things” place in your house. Prod your children to get their school stuff organized the night before — and coax the outfit-changing types to pick their outfits the night before, too. Get lunches ready. Etc.

6. You hate your destination so much you want to postpone showing up for as long as possible? If you dread going to work that much, or you hate school so deeply, or wherever your destination might be, you’re giving yourself a clear signal that you need think about making a big change in your life.

7.  Your co-workers won’t end meetings on time? This is an exasperating problem. You’re supposed to be someplace else, but you’re trapped in a meeting that’s going long. Sometimes, this is inevitable, but if you find it happening over and over, identify the problem. Is too little time allotted to meetings that deserve more time? Is the weekly staff meeting twenty minutes of work crammed into sixty minutes? Does one person hold things up? If you face this issue repeatedly, there’s probably an identifiable problem – and once you identify it, you can develop strategies to solve it — e.g., sticking to an agenda; circulating information by email; not permitting discussions about contentious philosophical questions not relevant to the tasks at hand, etc. (This last problem is surprisingly widespread, in my experience.)

Late or not, if you find yourself rushing around every morning, consider waking up earlier (see #1 above). Yes, it’s tough to give up those last precious moments of sleep, and it’s even tougher to go to bed earlier and cut into what, for many people, is their leisure time. But it helps.

I’ve started getting up at 6:00 a.m. so I have an hour to myself before I have to get everyone else out of bed. This has made a huge improvement in our mornings. Because I’m organized and ready by 7:00 a.m., I can be focused on getting all of us out the door.

My husband and I actually have the opposite problem: chronic earliness. It’s a great quality to share, because it means that both of us are happy to arrive early at the airport or a teacher’s conference. However, we often have to walk around the block a few times, as we wait for the proper time to ring someone’s doorbell, and we have a lot of empty time before movies start.

But if you conquered chronic lateness, what are some strategies that worked for you?

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Grrr. What chronic lateness often boils down to is inconsideration of others. Getting one last thing done, habitually oversleeping or habitually under-estimating travel time just reflects the notion that MY time is more important than YOUR time.

    If other people are chronically making you late, you have a decision to make on what’s more important. And possibly some training is in order for your kids, or an ultimatum for your spouse (“I’m not getting fired, so find another ride”).

    Backwards planning is the best. Start with an arrival time 10-15 minutes BEFORE you have to be there, then subtract specific times to allow for parking, for driving, for loading up the car, for breakfast, for dressing, for showering… and you arrive at your wake-up time. And then – DON’T fill that time with anything else!

    • avatar Mary says:

      Ahhhh, you all hit on my biggest pet peeve ever.  I find it realy difficult to understand why people need advice on how to be on time.  To me it is the biggest inconsideration of all.   I was working nites and 15 hour nites at that.  My relief only worked 9 hour days and chronically late, no matter who it was.  When they were on time, they surprised me and by on time I mean just 5 minutes late.  In two years time I was late once by 4 minutes because I had to stand in line before work to get something for supper. 

      If people you depend on to be on time are late for work and you cannot leave until they get there, I consider it the same as stealing.  They are stealing my time.

      If you have a appointment for a set time, leave earlier than you think.  If you are late it sets the whole day up to be behind for the next appointments.  It affects everyone.

      If you find that you cannot be on time, call and reschedule or at least let them know you are running late. This is the era of cell phones, no excuse.

      Emergencies happen, but not on a regular basis, be kind.

      When I was growing up my mother was always running late.  She had many children to get ready for wherever it was we were going and often we sat in the car waiting for her to leave with us.  Many a Sunday morning we arrived at church late and I remember how embarassing it was to have to walk down to the first row, where no one sat except us because we were always late.  It realy stuck with me that I would never be like that.   I adored my mother, just couldn’t stand the chronic lateness.

  2. avatar velma716 says:

    I have found I am more likely to be on time (and much less stressed out) if I under-commit.

    I accept fewer invitations. I am less stressed out, more energized, and more able to be fully present when I am there. Being less busy has resulted in being more punctual (and arriving less harried).

    what has worked for me:
    packing work stuff, gym stuff and lunch the night before.
    getting into bed earlier
    less social events during the week (and more gym time)

    I also like to give a range for arrival. I’ll commit to arriving “between 5 and 5:15”. I aim for 5, but have given myself extra time for parking snafus. this is particularly helpful when I’m using public transportation.

  3. avatar Bella Mia says:

    I am chronically late, but usually by only a few minutes. I had a cousin who was late by hours for social events, and she was a school teacher! I realize that I usually dread the event due to social anxiety. I have a great time when I’m there, but the anticipation Kills my enthusiasm. I wonder if I’ll be dressed appropriately, if I’ll be able to find the place, if I’ll know lots of people, (and who among those people speak cattily about me) if, if, if……I think these were holdover anxieties from high school.

    One thing I have never been late for is a date who comes by to pick me up. Somehow then the variables seem more within my control: I know who’s coming, I know exactly the right thing to where because it’s usually just the two of us, and if it’s a couple date, it’s other people I prefer.

    Church is another matter: I calculated one day that getting children ready for church required finding 10 articles of clothing per child. Two matching shoes, two matching socks, underwear top and bottom, shirt, pants, (or dress or skirt) belt, coat. Multiply that by 7 children and the same 10 articles for myself – and frankly, it was like living in a blizzard of clothing. One missing sock could throw off the whole enterprise. The solution to this was everyone getting older and becoming responsible for their own clothing – it’s helped tremendously.

    However, my oldest daughter is truly time disabled – she has no sense of time passing. Researching solutions helped us find the idea of playing music while she prepares, so that it’s obvious that the song is ending, so time has passed – a few more songs and it’s time to go She’s gotten better, but she’s always rushed.

    I like your idea of having a project to do at the destination to occupy moments before the event. I think I would be less anxious that way.

  4. avatar Annie H says:

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves EVER!  I have family members that are always late.  As in, an hour and a half late for a family dinner, etc.  It goes on from there.  I have gotten to tell these family members to be there at least a half hour before I really need them anywhere.  I find it quiet rude that people are always late.  Their time is more important than anyone else. 

    I am always on time.  You have to plan out your morning and what time you need to be out the door.  For example, in the shower at 5:45 am, make up done by 6:15 am, chores done (cat stuff) and out the door by 7 am.  You will know you are behind before it gets too bad. The big thing is you have to plan things out.  You can’t always fly by the seat of your pants.  It won’t work.  Even with two children I was always on time.

    And for those chronically late people, Yes, it is a big deal and Yes we do mind!

  5. avatar wendykh says:

    I am a person who enjoys and prefers to be on time (and funny enough I am reading this while my husband is TWO HOURS LATE to come home to watch our child so I can go out). I am never, ever late of my own accord. It is always 100% my husband’s fault. When I am not depending on him for child care (we are frugal and find $10 an hour babysitters rather unnecessary) or a vehicle (we are a one car family) I am always punctual.

    What it boils down to is since my obligations are not for employment, he just really doesn’t care about my needs and decides his come first. He’s had two weeks to get a document filed, but will suddenly remember two hours before I need him to babysit. If I have a medical appointment he insists on being dropped off along the way to his office and I am just being incredibly unreasonable to not do so as there’s simply absolutely nothing wrong in his opinion with being 15-20 minutes late everywhere. Well it is to me when my appointment is only one hour long. I have been 20-30 minutes late for classes, despite me showing him where in the syllabus the professor docks for tardiness. He doesn’t care. He says it’s ridiculous and will fight it if she does so.

    He is kind and considerate in EVERY way except for tardiness. He just really does not understand what the big freaking deal is. And no, he doesn’t care if you’re late to meet him either.

    I have tried telling him things are timed 30 minutes before they actually are. When we arrive on time, he actually gets upset we’re punctual and will now sternly ask “is that the REAL time or are you lying again?” He considers my need to be on time absolutely ridiculous.

    However, he knows I won’t leave our child alone. So until our child is old enough to be left alone for a reasonable amount of time, another 10 years, this is my life. Constantly being late because of HIM. I feel helpless and powerless. I hate it.

    Oh and when confronted on it he claims his life is just so busy and overwhelming and he simply can’t do a thing to change it.