Those who think people can’t change might argue that punctuality, a beloved characteristic in American culture, can’t be learned. No doubt it’s a tough undertaking for those who aren’t naturally punctual. But there are ways to help identify the root causes of tardiness, and tricks to lessen the stress and at times humiliation of showing up late.
Check your mental health
Being chronically late can have deep psychological drivers that go beyond having too much to do or mistiming traffic. Diane DeLonzer, author of Never Be Late Again, said in the Huffington Post that those with certain personality traits such as “anxiety, low self-control and a tendency toward thrill-seeking” tend to be late more often. Problems such as attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsiveness—which often drive late-goers to spend needless time fixing crooked placemats or over-surfing the Internet—can be to blame.
Identifying such chronic symptoms not only helps ease the guilty feelings associated with being late; it allows a person to create coping mechanisms to facilitate being on time.
Avoid over-scheduling your day
Society tends to reward busy overachievers. But the tendency for overachievers to over-schedule activities often leads to tardiness, according to DeLonzer. Pace yourself throughout the day and you’ll have a higher chance of making it to your next event on time.
Wake up earlier
A to-do list of small tasks—like figuring out what to wear, remembering important meetings, packing your keys and umbrella—can take up more time than you think, not to mention leave your mind frazzled when you have little time. According to a study by Harvard biologist Christoph Randler, waking up early can help you anticipate problems and minimize them. Give yourself the mental space to prepare for the day and anticipate what’s to come by setting an earlier alarm.
Clear away distractions
Little distractions that go unnoticed can eat up a lot of time. These include leaving tempting snacks scattered around your home or work area, email alerts, social media feeds, and even mirrors. Yes, preoccupation with mirrors makes time go by faster than you think, which is why they’re placed next to elevators and other areas where you need to wait for a long time. Each distraction may only take up a minute of your time, but those minutes can add up to, for instance, a 10 minute delay to an important meeting.
Don’t blame public transportation
A major benefit of living in a large metropolitan area is great access to public transportation. A major drawback: public transport is not always reliable. Only 77% of short-term trains (pdf) in the US are punctual compared to 90% of those in Europe. To pre-empt this problem, factor in ample extra time before your departure. If you end up being early, you can always check emails then.
Don’t fool yourself—you’re not that fast
Even meticulous planners overestimate their efficiency at completing tasks. The official term for that is the planning fallacy. Coined by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the phenomenon describes how “most people overrate their own abilities” and “don’t look at themselves objectively from the outside.” The lesson? Add 5 minutes onto even your most conservative time estimates.
Drop hints that it’s time to wrap up
Don’t let over-talkers squander your valuable time. If a manager, co-worker or friend is going on too long in conversation, there are subtle body cues that can politely signal that it’s time to go—gather your notebook and pen or slowly start standing, for example. Research suggests body cues are 65% to 93% more influential than spoken words.
Own up to the problem
Sometimes being late is a foregone conclusion. When that happens, be courteous enough to call or text the person you’re scheduled to meet with to say you’re running late and how long you’ll be. Admitting fault can show strength, character, and leadership.