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There Is a Cure for Chronic Lateness

But it takes some work

No matter what they try, some people can’t seem to stop themselves from being late. They’ve tried setting their clocks 10 minutes fast; their friends have tried giving them fake, earlier-than-you’re-actually-meeting meet-up times. Yet these people can still never get their shit together. Why?

“There’s no one reason why some people are always late,” says Ron Helpman, a psychotherapist in New York City who runs the lateness-coping website “With the rare exception, the idea that they don’t care about other people or even want others to wait for them is a misconception.” Helpman says that lateness isn’t usually something that’s innate or genetic, either: Creative types and people with ADD may lack the interest to plan ahead or have difficulty doing it, respectively, but that’s it. Instead, what truly makes habitually late people different from everyone else is the way they plan to get somewhere on time.

In particular, Helpman says late people commonly either overlook all the tasks they need to do (or don’t consider how long each task might take), or they don’t add up all of the steps it takes to get somewhere. For example, when people think about their destination time, they will often only think about the longest part of a journey somewhere without considering all the little things, like finding a parking spot and walking from their car.

Other people may always be relying on a best-case scenario, remembering the rare occasions that their commute takes 20 minutes even though it usually takes 30. For some, it’s a case of overestimating their own efficiency, saying they’ll be free in 10 minutes when their current task is really going to take at least another 40. It’s also important to note that many chronically late people exhibit more than one of these traits.

Helpman also says that late people find it tough to stick to a plan they do make. “They often find it difficult to get out the door unless they’re motivated by the fear of almost certain lateness,” he says.

So, what to do about this? Telling a late person to meet before the actual time, says Helpman, only works until they catch on. Instead, you need to give them a reason to be on time that they actually care about. “Chronically late people need to find a motivation for making punctuality a priority. The idea that other people will be upset with them is generally not effective, and if anything, creates resentment that others don’t understand them. Instead, they need to see how this would benefit them.” One of his clients, for example, had a major turning point when he realized how much he hated the stress of rushing when he was running late.

Of course, this realization doesn’t automatically give you the skills to get your shit together for good, so Helpman recommends the following exercise:

  • Step 1: Write down how long you’ve been allowing for preparation and travel. Then write a list of things you do for preparation and estimate how long each task takes. Add it all up.
  • Step 2: Ask yourself, did you account for every task (including normally overlooked stuff like using the bathroom or checking email) and every single step of the commute? Did you think about how long this stuff really takes, or did you write down how long you thought it should ideally take?
  • Step 3: Write a second list of all the preparation tasks and put them in the order you think you should do them — this is your chance to be more efficient. Then make a list with maximum time estimates for all your preparation and travel. Compare the total times for your initial time estimate and this maximum estimate. You may be shocked at how far off you were originally.
  • Step 4: Next, you have to factor in things that are out of your control — lost keys, train delays, traffic accidents, etc. — and how often they occur. Add these buffers to your maximum times, then add another five minutes, just to be sure.
  • Step 5: Stress test your maximum estimates for a week. If it still takes longer than you thought, figure out why by examining each step — Helpman finds that once late people take the time to think about how long things actually take, they’re able to make fairly accurate estimates.

Now, having practiced arriving on time for a week — hopefully a bit early, even — you can adjust your preparations and travel for everything else in your life accordingly. And you can finally stop making the rest of us wait for your annoying late ass.