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A Simple Mnemonic for Being on Time

Strategies and goals

boarding a train at sunrise

Lateness isn’t an enormously complicated problem, but a lot of us have trouble with it, whether from time to time or on a daily basis. A few years back, I posted How Not to Be Late: The 8 Principles of Being on Time, which has become one of the most popular articles on this site. That post covers the most practical information I can offer about lateness. For most of us, I believe those 8 ideas cover everything we have to do to conquer it.

Yet ideas are one thing, and putting them into practice is another. It takes time, effort, and attention to remember and use new behaviors, while for many of us, all three are in short supply. With that in mind, I put together a mnemonic that covers the four steps we can take to master lateness. I still strongly recommend reading How Not to Be Late, which covers both actions and attitude, but from there we just need a single word. That word is EAST, as in where the sun comes up in the morning (a time of day when lateness is especially common, which I mention in hopes of making the word itself a little easier to remember). Here’s what it stands for:

  • Early planning
  • Advance preparation
  • Set aside time
  • Tackle priorities first

Here’s a bit of explanation for each step:

Early planning: One of the mistakes many of us make is not thinking about being on time until the clock is already ticking. For instance, if I have an hour’s worth of things I really need to do before I leave, and I start 45 minutes before go-time, I’ve made myself late long before I walk out the door. Early planning means being aware of the event, knowing everything I’ll need to do to prepare, and having a good idea of how long getting ready will take.

Advance preparation: We identify the list of things we’ll need to do in the “early planning” step. Advance preparation can cross things off that list long before there’s any danger of lateness. Some examples of things that can be done in advance are gathering information, packing, preparing food, finding items that need to be brought along, planning routes, figuring out travel time, looking up telephone numbers, and picking out clothes.

Set aside time: This item isn’t needed for any task for which we can walk out the door (or pick up the phone) at a moment’s notice, but if we need to get cleaned up or dressed, get information, gather items, take care of things around the house or office, eat, or complete any other tasks before being free to head to the thing we want to be on time for, it’s necessary to set aside enough time to get those tasks done. It’s crucial to identify the true total amount of time that will be needed and to avoid cutting time we’ll need or being overly optimistic. Failing to handle this step well probably causes most incidents of lateness.

Tackle priorities first: When getting ready, starting with the most important tasks can let us be punctual even if something goes wrong or if preparation takes longer than expected. For example, if leaving to catch a train, it makes sense to ensure the ticket is at hand before, say, having a leisurely breakfast. The lower-priority items at the end of the process can often be sped up or skipped, but if we leave the most important tasks for last, that option disappears.

Putting EAST into practice
Using EAST will take a little effort up front: it requires fully understanding each of the points and memorizing the four terms. It won’t help me much to remember “EAST” if I forget what “S” means, for instance.

I’d recommend bookmarking this article, printing it out and putting it up somewhere you can easily refer to it, or to saving it to a smartphone or other device you’ll have on hand when you need it until you have the terms down and you’ve used them a number of times.

As always, please share this article on Facebook, Twitter, or other networks if you find it useful.

Photo by David Ashford

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How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before

Strategies and goals

Having a good day–a day when things are going well, when you feel in a groove and are making good choices–can just happen, but it can also come from good preparation (see “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower“). Here are some ways we can prepare the night before to have a particularly good day. In a follow-up article, I’ll talk about things we can do in the morning to start a day off on the right foot.

  • Plan extra time into the next morning. The more we have to rush in the morning, the more tense we tend to be and the more likely something will go wrong–or that a slight delay will be a serious problem instead of a nuisance. Also, starting the day off well generally requires having a little time in the morning to think, and ideally time to meditate and/or exercise.
    If you find yourself being late in the mornings, you can change that by following the recommendations in “How Not to Be Late: The 8 Principles of Being on Time.”
  • Get a good night’s sleep. It can be difficult to change our nighttime habits to get more sleep or to get enough but get up earlier, yet the payoffs are much higher, as a rule, than, say, getting an extra hour to watch TV. See “18 Ways to Get a Good Night’s Sleep.”
  • Solve problems in advance. If you can predict some of the trouble you may run into during the day–like getting into a bad mood because of a meeting with someone you don’t like, or having to get past a counter full of free bagels while trying to lose weight–you can picture solutions and make plans. It’s much easier to act on a plan you’ve already made when trouble arises than to improvise one on the spot, especially if you’re distracted or overwhelmed. You may even want to write some of these solutions down to review in the morning.
  • Choose one good thing to get done early on. Many of us have a lot of things we want to accomplish on any given day, but choosing one specific thing that especially needs to get done or that is particularly valuable can make it much easier to focus on and accomplish that thing early in the day, and that accomplishment can boost motivation and mood powerfully.

Photo by Éole

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How Not to Be Late: The 8 Principles of Being on Time

Strategies and goals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. Know everything you need to do before leaving and how long those things will take.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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A great article about lateness


There’s a very good (though a bit overstated) articlea friend pointed out today in The Chronicle of Higher Education  about lateness: . It’s a little jaded, but it offers four categories of late people, three of which seem very insightful to me. (The fourth claims that busy people are never late because they know the value of time, but to me that seems much like saying hungry people never make bad food choices.)

I was particularly interested in the article because of one of my own that I began writing some time back and expect to post when it’s ready, entitled “How Not to Be Late.” I think it will be useful in informing my own article when the time comes to finish it.

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How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower

Strategies and goals


While we often focus on how willpower operates at the moments when we need it, there are some aspects of willpower that function best if they’re prepared beforehand. A couple of examples might demonstrate what I mean.

Running up against no-win situations
1. A business owner plans a meeting with a prospective client. Knowing that she tends to be late, she resolves to pay extra attention to being on time. On the day of the meeting, she works on her marketing plan for much of the morning before remembering that she has to complete some important work for another client before she goes. She rushes through the task, but by the time it’s done she’s running behind, and she realized belatedly that she still needs to gather some papers before she leaves. She decides she can’t afford the time to find the papers, hurries to the meeting, arrives 20 minutes late, and is very anxious during her presentation–particularly since she doesn’t have the materials she was planning on bringing.

2. A man has recently started to eat more healthily and has resolved not to eat some of the foods that he used to love because his doctor has warned him of the danger of serious heart problems. He decides late in the afternoon to take his wife to dinner and lets her pick the restaurant. At the restaurant they have many of his old favorites that he has been trying to avoid and not much else that sounds appealing. He ends up ordering something that sounds a little healthier than his usual fare but turns out to be pretty much just as bad. His recent successes with healthy foods doesn’t feel so inspiring any more.

When no-win situations can be won in advance
In both of these examples, the individual is relying completely on acting well when the key decision–to leave on time, to choose something healthy–comes. The woman doesn’t consider making special plans to ensure she won’t be late, and the man assumes that eating right means just deciding well when he gets to the restaurant. Yet when the moment of truth comes along, the woman finds she is still busy with another priority, one she can’t set aside, and the man finds he has few good options.

Both of these situations show people who are trying to change habits using a “business as usual” approach. The problem with this is that changing habits by definition means not doing what we’re used to doing. Both the businesswoman and the man who is trying to protect his health are assuming that if they “just try harder” in some indefinable way, they will succeed. “Just trying harder” doesn’t work: what works is trying differently. In these examples, trying differently means preparing.

So how might the situations come out if the people involved prepare? Let’s take a look.

Using preparation to make willpower easier
1. A business owner plans a meeting with a prospective client. Knowing that she tends to be late, she decides to schedule the time she has before the meeting to ensure that she leaves not just on time, but 10 minutes early. She calculates how much time that will leave her in the morning and reviews her obligations. This shows her that she has to complete some important work for another client before she leaves, and that therefore she’ll need to start on that important work first thing in the morning. She would also like to work on her marketing plan, and thinks she might have time to complete that too, but she makes sure she schedules it second just in case. She completes the work for the other client in the morning and sends it out an hour and a half before it’s time to go. Then she sets an alarm clock for five minutes before departure time and begins work on the marketing plan. She’s not finished with the marketing plan when the alarm goes off, but she gets up and gathers her things. She realizes she needs to get some papers to bring with her and spends ten minutes getting them, but since she had built in a small buffer, she still arrives at her meeting a few minutes early, fully prepared.

2. A man has recently started to eat more healthily and has resolved not to eat some of the foods that he used to love because his doctor has warned him of the danger of serious heart problems. He decides late in the afternoon to take his wife to dinner, but realizes that unless they go to a place with something healthy he likes to eat, he might be in danger of ordering one of his old favorites. He talks with his wife and picks a restaurant that sells a lot of deep-fried foods but that also has a salad bar he likes. On the way to pick up his wife he realizes that he should do everything he can to prevent buying something fried, so he resolves to refuse a menu and preemptively order the salad bar. At the restaurant, the waitress tries to press the menu on him just so that he can see all the options, but he insists that he would like the salad bar even before they sit down. He has the salad bar and it’s pretty good, even if it’s not as good as the chicken fried steak and cheddar cheese soup he would usually have eaten. He even chooses to have the vinaigrette instead of his usual ranch dressing. He does eat some of his wife’s french fries, but not very many.

Perfection is optional
In the examples with preparation, both the business owner and the health-minded man still made mistakes. The business owner could clearly benefit from even more planning, and the health-minded man would do better to completely ignore his wife’s food–but both of them were essentially very successful, and their success was based not on somehow summoning up powerful reserves of self-control, but on steering their own behavior through preparation, and on recognizing their limitations.

All that effective preparation requires to aid willpower is a willingness to look into the future and think about the places where we’re vulnerable to fall into bad habits. In some cases, preparation can get us out of impossible situations (like needing to finish a project before leaving but also needing not to be late), and in others it can just make good choices easier (like providing an acceptable alternative to deep-fried food).

There is no substitute for a good choice
Preparation isn’t a substitute for making good decisions, though: the business owner could have chosen to work “just a little longer” on the marketing plan and ended up late after all, and the health-minded man could have taken the menu from the waitress just to avoid seeming unpleasant, then ended up ordering something he ultimately didn’t want to be eating. Good choices here means surrendering to our own priorities, giving up on the idea of finishing the marketing plan right away and being willing to seem a little unfriendly to the waitress if those things turn out to be  necessary for sticking to our goals.

What’s your greatest difficulty with willpower or self-motivation? Is there anything you could easily do ahead of time to tip those kinds of situations in your favor?

Photo by .imelda

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Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning



Learning and memory can be essential in self-motivation. Why? Well, consider two examples.

Let’s say a man, Scott, has trouble with being late, and he’s trying to change his habits to always be on time or a little early. Scott has three children, all in school, with various afterschool activities. Sometimes they take the bus home, but sometimes Scott needs to pick them up, while sometimes his wife, Selena, does. Sometimes activities get changed at the last minute.

So Scott might get much better at paying attention to what he’s doing before leaving to go somewhere, and he might start setting aside extra travel time in case of delays, but if his daughter shouts “We have an extra soccer practice tonight, so you have to pick me up” as she’s leaving for school in the morning and Scott doesn’t remember this fact, then his other preparations are useless, and his daughter will be left standing in front of a deserted, locked school until someone catches Scott’s mistake.

To take a different kind of example: let’s say Lisa wants to become much more organized at her job (she’s an architect). She attends a special training seminar on organization for architects, with all kinds of wonderful information–but she’s distracted during the seminar by a very sick man sitting next to her, and so while she scribbles down a lot of notes, the information doesn’t sink in. When she looks back later, her notes aren’t of much help: she wasn’t really understanding the material when she wrote it down, so she’s not going to suddenly understand it from looking at her own notes later. She has a vague recollection that the system seemed to be exactly what she needed and involved a lot of colored folders, but that’s it. The system never gets implemented and Lisa continues to spend hours every week trying to find documents she needs.

So if learning and memory are important to self-motivation, how do we improve them?  There are a few important facts to keep in mind.

Make sure you understand as you’re learning
We don’t remember things like a video recorder: our brain breaks up everything see, hear, touch, etc. into a lot of separate kinds of information and store it all over the brain, bringing it together as needed. That means that if you don’t learn something when it’s presented to you, you usually won’t be able to learn it by trying to recall the details. Effective learning requires focus at the time you’re learning.

We learn better when information has meaning
The more meaning and connections information has for us, the easier it is to remember. As an example, many top chess players can look at a chess board mid-game and instantly memorize the location of every single piece on the board. In one study, chess players with this ability were able to remember layouts set up from actual games beautifully, but were much poorer at being able to remember layouts where pieces were just set randomly around the board. The actual game layouts were meaningful to them: a possible threat to the queen here, mutually protective knights there, and so on. Random game layouts didn’t have these meanings, so they couldn’t “chunk” the information (that is, bind up many pieces of information into a single “chunk” that can be recalled as one piece), which was what was enabling them to memorize so much information so well (I’m trying to help both myself and my readers chunk concepts from posts when I use subheadings, like in this article). More meaning connections to a piece of information also gives you more possible ways to remember it when you need to.

Emotion is a powerful force in memory
We learn things better when we have emotional associations with them. Have you ever used your own personal information, or a family member’s, when making up a password? Those kinds of passwords are much easier to remember than random passwords, because our lives and those of family members have much more meaning to us than random information. (Unfortunately, such passwords are also usually easier for other people to guess.) In the same way, experiences that are powerfully joyful or frightening or that are emotionally charged in some other way tend to be very memorable. If you run out of your house while it’s on fire, you’re liable to remember that in much greater detail than if you run out of the house to get to the hardware store before it closes. (Although this is also because we tend to remember unusual things better than everyday things.)

To really learn something, start using it immediately
When learning how to do something, one of the strongest possible ways to fix it in memory is to start using it. This serves several purposes: it provides a lot more neural connections for the information; it allows you to experiment and apply the information while it’s still fresh in your memory; and it helps turn up any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in while you’re still close to the source of the original information.

One way to start using knowledge immediately is to write, talk, or teach about it. If you find out something you think will be especially useful in your life, you might consider calling up a friend and telling them about what you’ve learned, or blogging or writing a journal entry about it. This forces you to use the information in a way that creates more connections and helps you see exactly how well you’ve understood it, at the same time that you’re doing other people a service by passing it on.

Come back to the same information several times to fix it in memory
Getting information to permanently take up residence in long-term memory usually requires revisiting it several times, with perhaps a few hours to a few days between repetitions. If you make notes about something you want to learn, you can leave yourself two reminders to come back to it two more times, just to review. You can also use the write, talk, or teach approaches at timed intervals. The same amount of study spread over a day or a few days or a week seems to be much more effective than taken all at once.

How this all works in real life
So for instance, if you were writing an article on how memory applies to willpower, you might start out with some examples that people could easily envision, to give meaning to the idea that memory applies to self-motivation. You might even make those examples a little emotionally loaded, with a stranded child here, anxiety about a sick person there … actually, that sounds like it might work. Remind me to write something like that sometime!

And if you want to make the best possible use of this article, you might glance over it to make sure you understand everything, asking yourself questions about each of the major points and seeing how well you can answer them. You might then go blog about it, tell a friend about it, try to summarize the main points in a quick written outline, or go use this information to learn something else. Reviewing it twice over the next couple of days would give it the strongest chance of sticking around.

For more information on how memory works, along with other useful information about how the brain operates, I highly recommend John Medina’s book Brain Rules, which provided some of the information for this entry.

Photo by clappstar.


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