Help for People Who are Always Late

Are you one of those people? You tell yourself you’re going to leave home in plenty of time to keep your appointment. You put out your clothes the night before, and set your alarm. Yet in spite of your best efforts, you’re always fifteen minutes late for work, or your meeting, or your class. It’s probably been true your whole life, and it seems impossible to change.

Or perhaps it’s not you who is chronically late. Perhaps it’s your spouse, or one of your kids. It drives you crazy, but that person can’t seem to fix the chronic tardiness.

There is hope, however. Research conducted this year has revealed ways to break this pattern of lateness. While traditional wisdom has suggested psychological reasons for tardiness (such as resisting authority), this research suggests the problem may be a correctable cognitive defect.

The study was conducted by Washington University psychologist Emily Waldun and Mark McDaniel. It showed that chronic tardiness may have its origins in a function called Time-Based Prospective Memory (TBPM). Researchers gave subjects a certain amount of time to finish a task, and required them to pace themselves in order to complete it. The subjects were given the option of checking the clock before time ran out.

TBPM experiments are similar to what happens when you’re deeply involved in an activity – such as reading a good novel or catching up on Facebook – during the very time you are supposed to getting ready to leave. It feels as though only five minutes has passed, but in fact 20 minutes have elapsed.

People who are good at TBPM are able to regulate their clock-checking behavior, rather than relying on an internal clock (which is probably not accurate). But in addition to comparing your internal clock to the “real” clock, you also have to be able to gauge the amount of time you’ll need to get ready and get from one place to the next.

In light of this, the researchers suggest three tips to help you reduce your own time estimation bias:

1. Check the clock. Don’t try to keep track of time based on your own intuition. You might want to buy a watch and consult it frequently, to help you stay on track for your daily commitments.

2. Develop a strategy for getting things done on time. If you know it takes you 10 minutes to blow dry your hair, use this as a guide to develop a “switch time” when you move from one task to another.

3. Resist the temptation to do “just one more thing” before the time you need to leave. The study emphasized the importance of what they call “plan fidelity.” Make your plan, and stick to it.

  • William Manners

    That’s me! I’ve been that way all my life. If there are just a few minutes before I have to leave then there’s time to do 1 more thing.