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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 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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