In 2003, I entered a writing contest, one in which I had already been a finalist. The deadline for mailing in entries was a Saturday, and at the time I lived in a small Vermont city where the last mail collection anywhere nearby on Saturday was at noon–but there was a post office about an hour away that didn’t close until a few hours later. I finished final edits to my story after noon, cursed my luck, printed it and readied it for mailing, and drove the two hour round trip to mail it from the central post office. On the way home I thought to myself “If I don’t win–and it’s such a big contest, I probably won’t–this is going to have been a huge waste of time.”
I did win, and the winning was very, very much worth the inconvenience of a two hour drive. But I had three months in which to write the story, and I finished just an hour or two too late to mail it from my local post office. Why did everything get pushed to the last minute? Why are so many of us so often late?
The answer to that question has gradually come clear to me over the last few years of studying self-motivation, and in general it’s that being on time requires coordinating a variety of things we often don’t think to or don’t want to coordinate. Knowing exactly what all of these pieces are makes it much easier to be on time all the time–if a person decides to put in the effort. If being on time doesn’t feel as important as finishing the TV show or getting another 15 minutes of sleep, then it won’t win out. If being late is causing trouble in your life, the first thing to consider is valuing being on time more highly. Maybe it’s worth more than it seems at first blush. Because knowing how to be on time isn’t enough: to be on time, a person also has to take responsibility and commit to using what they know about timeliness. I’ll talk about how to value things better in another post.
But for any of us who are interested in being more punctual, here are the key principles of being on time:
- Plan in advance. It’s not possible to be on time on the spur of the moment unless you happen to be very lucky. Being on time requires planning, because our off-the-cuff estimates tend to miss important things that are between us and getting somewhere on time except in the simplest cases. Little problems and delays in getting somewhere are common–the greater the distance or the less familiar the route, the more they tend to happen. Really being on time requires allotting extra room in case of a little trouble on the way.
- Get ready first; do optional things second. Though it’s often much more tempting to, say, finish reading a chapter of a book first and then get ready to go, really committing to being on time may mean putting the book down, getting ready, and then finishing the chapter if there’s time.
- Know what time you have to get up to go (… or pick up the phone, log in, head to bed, etc.). Include travel time, a buffer for minor mishaps, and time to actually get out the door (because getting up from the easy chair isn’t the same thing as pulling out of the driveway).
- Know everything you need to do before leaving and how long those things will take.
- Take personal responsibility for being on time. It’s true, sometimes there are major problems that get in the way, but things like “I couldn’t find my keys” and “Traffic on the interstate was slow” usually are sidestepping responsibility rather than taking control and owning one’s own schedule and decisions.
- Be OK with arriving early. If you try to arrive exactly on time, you’re planning on everything going exactly as expected, which everything rarely does. If you’re concerned about not making good use of time or about being bored, bring something to do (a book, a list of things you need to think over, a meditation practice) in case you find yourself with extra time.
- Recognize the costs of being late, both to others and to yourself. For instance, if a meeting for five people is held up for 15 minutes because of one person, this is equivalent in some ways to making someone sit down and wait for them for an hour. Being late also diminishes others’ confidence and trust in the late person, loses opportunities that may be available on time but not afterward, makes a worse impression, creates problems with others’ schedules, etc. To adapt an analogy from Stephen Covey, building trust is like making a deposit in a bank account: each time a person lives up to responsibilities, trust increases. Each time a person doesn’t live up to responsibilities (for instance, by being late), the account gets drawn down, and if this keeps happening, it eventually gets overdrawn, and there’s no trust left at all.
- Accept that being late isn’t the end of the world, though. It’s not necessary to beat oneself up about being late: recognize the costs, take responsibility, and be willing to prioritize more next time. Getting too anxious about being late can make it hard to bring ourselves to focus on it long enough to conquer the problem. The past is done; we can only change what we’re doing now and plan better for the future.
The principles of being on time apply not only to getting to appointments, but also to things like getting enough sleep and doing a task that is promised by a certain time. And while being on time is not the single greatest virtue in the world, it is a practice that contributes to serenity, opportunity, and good relations.
A later post of mine provides a simple mnemonic for being on time: EAST. It provides an easy way to apply the ideas above.
Image by monkeyc.net