There are three things that remind me of my father’s car: the Beach Boys, ChapStick, and a clock that is intentionally ten minutes fast. My father is one of those people who lives in his own time zone: Jeff Standard Time, sandwiched somewhere between Greenwich Mean and Mountain.
I used to tease my father for setting his clocks fast to try (and rarely succeed) at fooling himself into punctuality. Now I find myself doing the same thing. I know my alarm clock is set ten minutes fast, but there’s some glimmer of hope that in the fog between sleep and wakefulness, I’ll read the blaring red numbers, forget that I’m playing games with myself, jump out of bed, and get the proverbial early-bird worm.
Why are some of us chronically late while others are predictably punctual? A lot of reasons. We learn it from our parents. (Thanks, Dad.) We learn it from our culture. (In some countries, like Ecuador and Peru, tardiness is so culturally ingrained that the governments have initiated public punctuality campaigns.) We are better or worse at quantifying measurements like time. (I’m also hopeless when it comes to estimating distance or how many people were at a party. Jelly beans in a jar? Forget it.) We value and perceive time differently. (I like to think of it as a jumping-off point for negotiations.) We want or don’t want attention. We’re focused or easily distracted. We try to do too much. We are thrilled or repelled by the anxiety of running late.
There are myriad reasons. There are also myriad excuses.
Do Something About It
When I lived in New York, I could blame my tardiness on the city. There seemed to be a thousand and one obstacles to getting anywhere on time in Manhattan: subway maintenance, visiting dignitaries, spilled coffee, construction, street musicians, bagels, man on the tracks. I readily offered these excuses as I plopped down ten, fifteen, even thirty minutes late to work or a drink with a friend. “You would never believe the traffic on Broadway,” I’d sigh. The city was conspiring against me, and like Alice’s White Rabbit, I was perpetually late for a very important date.
Recently, I moved from New York to a smaller city, where I have a car and more control over my schedule—which means fewer available excuses. I also have a friend who has redefined the word “late” (she has a personal record of three hours) and has put me on the other side of the fence. I’ve made some progress. And as they say on TV, now so can you! Before you give up and move to Peru, try some of these strategies for making yourself more punctual:
1. The first step is acceptance. Admit you have a problem and enlist help.
2. Surround yourself with clocks (not just the one on your cell phone).
3. Bring something to read or occupy you, so if you arrive early, you don’t feel like you’re “wasting time.”
4. Give yourself a handicap. If you’re a bad estimator, double the time you think it will take to get there.
5. If you’ve never been where you’re going, look up directions beforehand (not at the time you’re supposed to be walking out the door).
6. Before you accept invitations for engagements, ask yourself if you really can, or want to, attend. If you’re hesitant, perhaps it’s better to politely decline than rudely arrive late.
7. Don’t try to do too much. Keep a detailed schedule and don’t be distracted by tasks not on it.
8. Fine yourself a dollar (to your piggy bank) for every minute you’re late.
9. Hypnosis. Hey, it can’t hurt, right?
And for those of you who always arrive on the dot (well done), but are frustrated by your unfashionably late friends and colleagues, try these tips:
1. Calmly let the person know you’re irritated.
2. Impose some kind of consequence, playfully at first. For example, if your friend is late for a coffee date, she buys.
3. Give her a taste of her own medicine. On your next meeting, show up as late as she was the last time.
Time is not money for everyone, but it is a resource. If you waste someone’s, they can’t get it back. Punctuality is about consideration, and it’s something I’m working on. I’ll keep you posted, but now I’ve gotta run. I’m late.
Updated July 5, 2010