Stop being late for everything

While browsing at a small-town thrift store last week, something shiny caught my eye. Hanging on the wall behind the cash register, was a large, cartoonish costume that looked like a burlesque dancer, complete with a garish gold bikini and tassles on the nipples. It was crudely made – white fabric haphazardly stuffed, and an apron-like hook to go over the wearer’s head. Sewed to the midriff was a paper sign that read: “I was late for work today”.

I asked a staff member about it and she explained that if an employee is late for work, the store owner makes them wear it all day. “Does she really enforce it,” I said? When the cashier nodded, I asked if she had ever had to wear it. “Only once,” she said, “It was so embarrassing that I started to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier.”As I left the store, I did a small fist pump for the employer who had managed to teach her staff the importance of showing up on time in a way that actually worked but still had an element of fun.  Obviously this tactic lends itself to the atmosphere of a funky thrift shop and would probably be inappropriate in a law office or any other environment where the tardy employee would be meeting with clients.  But the notion that you could shame people into being on time was intriguing.I have worked with, and employed, people who have been habitually late for work and meetings and while I have attempted to help them understand that their behaviour is disrespectful, disruptive and will decrease their opportunities for promotion, I have not been as successful as the thrift store owner.

While some of the chronically tardy accept responsibility and are truly apologetic, most believe they are innocent victims of circumstance when in actual fact, being late is the result of many choices that are within their control.  They all have excuses and they’re not even good ones: My husband takes a long time in the bathroom. I got caught up watching TV. I forgot I had no clean clothes. My mother called.  I was reviewing my stocks online. I like to eat breakfast slowly. I was having a great dream. It’s snowing.

Obviously I understand that in our fast-paced society, we are all late sometimes.  A kid’s meltdown, unexpected road construction or a subway outage can derail event the most organized among us.  But occasional lateness is quite different from chronic tardiness characterized by a complete inability to arrive anywhere on time that is generally part of a lifelong pattern.

Psychologists have difficulty pinpointing if always-late people are deliberately disrespectful or if they are actually unable to estimate time.  Those of us who generally arrive on time go through a mental process when we are faced with a deadline.  We determine the number of minutes between where we are now and where we need to be and develop a work-back schedule that includes an inventory of everything we need and/or want to do in the ensuing time.  Using past experience, we note how long it will take to complete each thing and if it’s obvious we don’t have enough time for everything, we eliminate things from the list or do things less “perfectly” than we would like.  As the time ticks down, we check the clock frequently, don’t start things we can’t finish and look for efficiencies along the way. We may repeat this process several times as we navigate our day.

Unsurprisingly, people who are always late, don’t activate this process and no one can say with certainty whether it’s deliberate or innate.  They really believe they can sleep another fifteen minutes, watch ten more minutes of TV or stop at that trendy coffee shop with the huge lineup.  Despite the fact that it has taken them 20 minutes to style their hair every day for the past ten years, they will allot 15 minutes today, thinking they will somehow defy gravity and do it faster.

Diana Delonzor, author of Never Be Late Again: 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged, is a reformed late person who retrained herself and now helps others.  Delonzor says that being chronically late goeswell beyond poor time management and different people have different reasons, although they’re not always conscious.  Some use it as a form of control and rebellion against authority, others lack the willpower and discipline to follow through on actions.  Some people just have an ‘absent-minded professor’ personality and are always getting lost in their thoughts and activities. She says that being ten minutes late for work everyday for a year amounts to one week’s paid vacation.

So are they just irresponsible or do they suffer from an inherent lack of self-discipline?  Well, if they’re looking for an office job, it doesn’t really matter.  In order for a workplace (and society in general) to function, we need some kind of order and one of the simplest ways to maintain that is to organize our time.  While DeLonzor is proof that a habitually late person can be reformed, it’s very hard to change lifelong patterns and once you have the reputation for being unreliable, you can lose friends, get skipped over for promotions and even get fired.

None of us has the luxury of a job that only calls on us to do things we find easy and conveniently overlooks our weaknesses.  For some, tardiness is a weakness, for others it might be teamwork or providing feedback.  We all have to work at overcoming the stuff that just doesn’t come naturally.  If you’re unable or unwilling to do that, then you’re probably sentenced to a life of working on your own, which is not necessarily a bad thing but even then, you will not be able to avoid the odd meeting, wedding or dinner with friends.

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