Seven Tips If You’re Chronically Late

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips if you’re chronically late.

Feeling as though you’re always running twenty minutes behind schedule is an unhappy feeling. Having to rush, forgetting things in your haste, dealing with annoyed people when you arrive…it’s no fun.

If you find yourself chronically late, what steps can you take to be more prompt? That depends on why you’re late. As my Eighth Commandment holds, the first step is to Identify the problem – then you can see more easily what you need to change.

There are many reasons you might be late, but some are particularly common. Are you late because…

1.You sleep too late? If you’re so exhausted in the morning that you sleep until the last possible moment, it’s time to think about going to sleep earlier. Many people don’t get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation is a real drag on your happiness and health. Try to turn off the light sooner each night.

2.You try to get one last thing done? Apparently, this is a common cause of tardiness. If you always try to answer one more email or put away one more load of laundry before you leave, here’s a way to outwit yourself: take a task that you can do when you reach your destination, and leave early. Tell yourself that you need that ten minutes on the other end to read those brochures or check those figures.

3. You undestimate the commute time? You may tell yourself it takes twenty minutes to get to work, but if it actually takes forty minutes, you’re going to be chronically late. Have you exactly identified the time by which you need to leave? That’s what worked for me for getting my kids to school on time. We have a precise time that we’re supposed to leave, so I know if we’re running late, and by how much. Before I identified that exact time, I had only a vague sense of how the morning was running, and I usually thought we had more time than we actually did. My daughter goes into near-hysterics if we’re late, so that motivated me to get very clear on this issue.

4. You can’t find your keys/wallet/phone/sunglasses? Nothing is more annoying than searching for lost objects when you’re running late. Designate a place in your house for your key items, and put those things in that spot, every time. I keep everything important in my (extremely unfashionable) backpack, and fortunately a backpack is big enough that it’s always easy to find. My husband keeps his key items in the chest of drawers opposite our front door.

5. Other people in your house are disorganized? Your wife can’t find her phone, your son can’t find his Spanish book, so you’re late. As hard as it is to get yourself organized, it’s even harder to help other people get organized. Try setting up the “key things” place in your house. Prod your children to get their school stuff organized the night before—and coax the outfit-changing types to pick their outfits the night before, too. Get lunches ready. Etc.

6.You hate your destination so much you want to postpone showing up for as long as possible? If you dread going to work that much, or you hate school so deeply, or wherever your destination might be, you’re giving yourself a clear signal that you need think about making a change in your life.

7. Your co-workers won’t end meetings on time? This is an exasperating problem. You’re supposed to be someplace else, but you’re trapped in a meeting that’s going long. Sometimes, this is inevitable, but if you find it happening over and over, identify the problem. Is too little time allotted to meetings that deserve more time? Is the weekly staff meeting twenty minutes of work crammed into sixty minutes? Does one person hold things up? If you face this issue repeatedly, there’s probably an identifiable problem – and once you identify it, you can develop strategies to solve it — e.g., sticking to an agenda; circulating information by email; not permitting discussions about contentious philosophical questions not relevant to the tasks at hand, etc. (This last problem is surprisingly widespread, in my experience.)

Late or not, if you find yourself rushing around every morning, consider waking up earlier (see #1 above). Yes, it’s tough to give up those last precious moments of sleep, and it’s even tougher to go to bed earlier and cut into what, for many people, is their leisure time. But it helps.

I’ve started getting up at 6:00 a.m. so I have an hour to myself before I have to rassle everyone out of bed. This has made a huge improvement in our mornings. Because I’m organized and ready by 7:00 a.m., I can be focused on getting all of us out the door. (On a related note, here are more tips for keeping school mornings calm and cheery.)

What are some other strategies that work if you suffer from chronic lateness?

* A great blog, Get Rich Slowly, is about “personal finance that makes cents.” It covers a very broad range of topics related to finance, so there’s much there of interest to just about anyone.

* Introducing something new: Word-of-mouth Wednesday! Now, not only is Wednesday the weekly Tip Day, it’s also the day when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter
Pre-order the book for a friend
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.
(Note that various links in the comment box, just below, make some of these steps easier.)

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • jodigoldman

    I am so depressed – ALL these reasons make me late, ha ha ha
    well, at least i know where to start… i leave for vacation tomorrow, so, i will start then, i refuse to start my holiday stressed and moody because we dont leave at the right time. now if you will excuse me, i have some packing to do! :o)

  • Kim

    What about those of us who are chronically early? I used to sit in front of my high school classroom in the morning for a half hour before school started so I wouldn’t be late. I have been known to kill time in a parking lot for 15 minutes because I’m early. We sit in movie theatres for 25 minutes before the previews. I don’t want to be late or risk having a bad seat. It can be a problem too. Any thoughts on this problem?

  • elizmck

    Our employees were chronically late. Every year, during their reviews, it was mentioned and they were marked down. Promises were made and almost immediately broken. It wasn’t the commute (10 minutes for each of them); they claim to love their respective jobs. We were baffled. We changed their working hours, starting later and ending later. Essentially, they get to work at the same time as they did when they were late, but now have to work later. We’re happy and they are on time, for once.

    Being late is a real pet peeve of mind. I realize there are times when things are beyond your control, but when this problem becomes chronic, something clearly needs to be done.

    I guess my mantra is: Happiness is being on time.

  • Jason

    Very nice tips. My favorite trick is the oldie of setting your watch 10 minutes ahead (though some people might need 30 minutes ahead).
    For a more global problem of being late here are some other suggestions:

  • Name

    You read my mind, Gretchen: I was taking myself to task on this very issue just this morning (while on my way to work, late for the second time already this week). I’ll be implementing (or in some cases re-implementing) the tips you mentioned above, because after all, if it’s on the Happiness Project blog, it must be good advice! 😉 Thanks for all your insights.

  • allwomenstalker

    Great tips! I will be sending this to people I know. Haha. Good thing being tardy is not a problem for me.


  • andreamanuela

    Ugh! What a problem this can be for my family and I. You’d think the three ladies in the house, myself included within those three, would be the late ones (because of all the exaggerated preparation ladies need when going out)…however, this is not the case in my family. My older brother is the one who has an issue with his clock and it can really get on my nerves.
    I will admit that I, too, suffer from being late just not as late as him.
    The 10 minute setback worked at first, but now that they’ve all realized I did that to our clocks(or the fact that they can check their cells) makes them ignore it.
    Problem: unsolved.

  • wirehead2501

    Ugh, this is the one I’ve been trying to fix lately! #2 is my serious difficulty — especially in the morning, I just can NOT get out of my house without going through this whole checklist (does trash need to be taken out, are things out of place, do the plants need to be watered, and so on). I think it’s partly that I’m reluctant to leave and partly that I have the misguided notion that these things all take “just a couple of minutes” and so won’t make me late.

    #7 happens to me too, and it drives me CRAZY, because I feel like people aren’t being respectful of my time. The thing that really irks me about it is that I don’t feel comfortable excusing myself from the meeting, or asking people to take discussions “offline”, because I’m afraid it will reflect badly on me.

  • Great tips for those who want to try to be on time. I’m not one of them, except for critical things. For things that aren’t critical, I can always be counted on to be late. Doctor appointments, movies, meetings – I’m on time. Social events, usually not. Doesn’t bother me, though. And it doesn’t bother the people who know me. I always tell people to always start without me. Time measurement is just something that man has created; it’s not a law of the universe or anything, just another way of keeping track. I’m very relaxed about time; I like the concept of “island time.” lol!

    • Rose

      add’l comment: It’s not that I don’t think others’ time is important or that I don’t respect them. I think that measuring time is not important in most cases. Once I grasped that concept, I stopped getting anxious and upset at my tardiness and at the tardiness of others. Once I let go of expectations about measured time and just let life flow with happiness and joy, I could enjoy people when they showed up more, happily greeting them instead of angrily greeting them and letting their tardiness ruin the event. Letting go of all the anger leaves more room for happiness. Namaste

  • gira

    Thanks for all the good ideas!
    typo alert:
    “Is the weekly staff meeting twenty minutes of work crammed into sixty minutes?”
    I think you meant: “Is the weekly staff meeting _sixty_ minutes of work crammed into _twenty_ minutes? ”

    • gretchenrubin

      No, actually, I meant 20 minutes of work crammed into 60 minutes. An attempt at humor — and in my experience, a more common problem with meetings than the opposite situation!

  • It’s #1 for me, front and center. Good sleep changes everything, but I don’t attend to it the way I should. So then I’m frazzled the next day. I clicked over to the “turn off the light” link. I’ve never thought of it this way – sleep begets sleep. I’m gonna try to remember that. Thanks.

  • Oh man… I know some people who could definitely benefit from this post! I’m going to pass it along. 🙂

  • adora

    I often fit something unimportant and flexible near the destination right before meetings. Like checking out a book at a nearby bookstore. If I were late, I could cancel that and still be on time. If my friends were late, I can get some chores done.

    I’m more interested in how to make other people show up on time. In my experience, the more comfortable the meeting place is, the more late people would be. e.g. If I were meeting a friend at a coffee shop or restaurant, they would be 30-45 minutes late. If we were to meet outside in winter, they would more likely be on time. It’s just that they don’t feel bad if you are waiting comfortably. Argh, so fed up!

    Remember: Being late is like saying that other people’s time is not as important as yours!

  • Another strategy: Just Say No (or Ask For Help).

    Some are chronically tardy because they don’t know how to say “no”. They always need to get one more thing done before they leave the office or house because they’re over-committed. Our need to overachieve is both a blessing and a curse. We excel until we become overwhelmed and it starts to pull us down. In some cases, this manifests itself as tardiness.

    First, keep in mind that you have the option to say no more often than you think. As one small example, just consider your after-work schedule. Do you and your kids really need to have activities scheduled every night of the week? Does this set the example you want for your kids as they mature? As Gretchen says, “the years are short.” It takes breathing room to be happy and improve that level of happiness. Otherwise, you’re in a perpetual state of “GO!” The inertia of life is a wickedly powerful thing. Give yourself some space. Think twice before you add another item to your calendar.

    If you really are required to do all that you have on your plate, then delegate where appropriate to kids, spouse, and employees. If you aren’t in a position to delegate, ask a co-worker or friend to provide a helping hand. Just take a quick minute to explain why you need the help. Typically, people will understand and are happy to chip in.

  • Melissa

    Gretchen – thank you for a timely post! I just started thinking this morning that I want to become one of those people that is always prompt. I got to thinking that others treat us differently based on whether we’re always running late or always on time. For my friends that are always prompt themselves, I make an extra effort to be on time for them. By the same token, if one of my prompt folks unexpectedly runs late, I’m totally understanding – something unforseen must really have come up, because this _never_ happens! I started thinking that I want the respect I give those people, and the best way to earn respect is to give respect.

  • Number 5, other people in your house being disorganized: Another approach is simply leaving on time without them. While obviously this won’t work with small children in your care, it is very effective with teens and adults. Once you’ve taken care of your own need to be on time by walking out the door at the agree-upon time, they must then arrange their own transportation, etc.

    While this may seem wasteful because you and your spouse may end up taking two vehicles to the same event, if you arrive calm and unstressed because you are on time, it can be very much worth it. The trick is to disassociate yourself from your spouse’s lateness. It is their problem, don’t make it your problem.

    One of two things will happen: either this will make your partner more stressed and they will be motivated to try to solve their new problem, or your partner isn’t bothered by being late and you can both be calm at different arrival times.

    Nagging, poking, sighing, taking on their chores to speed things along, these are all enabling behaviors. Be clear about your OWN needs, act consistently to meet those needs, and let other adults do what they need to do.

    • Name

      Louise, you make such absolutely perfect, non-judgmental sense when you say “or your partner isn’t bothered by being late and you can both be calm at different arrival times.” Isn’t that the answer? For everyone to accept one another, not fret and just enjoy the moments together?

      It isn’t generally true that being chronically late means a disregard for others’ time at all; that’s just some peoples’ perception and judgment. I don’t disrespect my friends and family; I love them and look forward to being with them when I arrive. We’re always happy to be together; the timing doesn’t matter, the being together matters. I could say that you wearing green means that you hate my cat, but that doesn’t make it true. We can’t accurately judge another person’s motivations. Namaste

  • Hey Gretchen,

    Figure out how long you’ll take, then give people 3x that time estimate.

    What I’ve found is that it usually takes 1.5-2.5x as long to do something as you planned. On occasion you get it done on your estimated time – and very rarely does it take less.

    By giving people at least 3x the time estimate, you accomplish 3 things:

    1) You’re always on time, while being able to relax and have breathing room. Even if you finish before the 3x estimate, you can work a bit more and take your time to get to the meeting and still be timely.

    2) You build a reputation for being on time. You respect people’s time and they respect you.

    3) You add the weapon of pleasant surprise to your arsenal. During moments when you finish way ahead of the 3x estimate, you can put the cherry on top to clients/friends/others by delivering early. Don’t do it too much, lest people start to expect it. But utilizing this once in a while will put you over the top – make you remarkable.

    Thanks for the 7 tips Gretchen,


    • Dlunn1107

      Thank you Oleg…you hit the nail on the head!! As a chronically late person (and about to lose my job because of it)…I am at this web site looking for help on how to always be on time…
      It takes me 12 minutes to get to work. So if my start time is 7:00 I leave by 6:45 and still am always late and couldn’t figure out why. in anaylsis…If I’m standing in my kitchen, how long does it ACTUALLY take to be at my desk, ready to punch in for the day? I wrote down everything I have to do to get from my kitchen to my desk at work..1. Time to go to work – get coats/gloves/hat on, gather drink, food, purse, keys, etc – actually sitting in the car – 15 minutes. Arrange seat, clean out kids crap, pulling out of garage – 5 minutes.
      drive to work 12 minutes. Gather everything to take into work, and walk from parking lot to locker – 9 minutes. TAke off outerwear, put vest on, put stuff in Fridge. Check vest pockets for need supplies, gather outerwear and walk to service desk, get phone, new battery and schedule, walk to desk..15 minutes!!! Add em up..56 minutes from kitchen to desk. NO WONDER IM always late!! So from now on,
      time to leave for work is 1 hour before start time. Wish me luck…I need my job!! AND for some of you…no I do not think myself unimportant or more important that anyone else. I HATE being late…rushing around knowning people are annoyed , stressing myself out…I hate it. My perception of time is obviously wrong, and heres to fixing!!

  • Vi

    Hi Gretchen,

    What a wonderful post! I am chronically late, but it’s not necessarily something I want to change about myself. In identifying the problem, I have identified the fact that I’m late because I don’t want to be early. Being early means that I am wasting time — time that could be spent doing something else, something more worthwhile. I try my best to be exactly on time, not a second too early. Therefore, I’m usually either exactly on time or late, rarely early. And to be quite frank, I don’t forsee myself changing that behavior.


  • Baba Yaga

    If I’m on foot, I tend to be a minute or two late: take something with you to do when you arrive is spot on. Why it helps, I don’t know, but it does.

    &, for me, it addresses the ‘chronically’ early problem which Kim mentions. If I’m on public transport, I tend to be half an hour early. Turns out that if I have something productive to do, that’s no problem. A glove or a sock on 4 needles tucks easily into a pocket.

    Early rising is fatal for me, though – if I have extra time, I will squeeze extra tasks in, & I will be late. No, it doesn’t take 10 minutes to wash up, I only think it does.

  • Jen

    I hope people take these to heart; I think the first step (like so many things) is admitting that it is a problem. My parents told me that being late is a sign of disrespect, and I agree with that. There is a reason that a time is set, whether it’s the time to show up for work or a time to meet for dinner. Unavoidable and rare delays are forgiven, but when one is always late, whether people care to admit it or not, the message is: “you–and the plans that have been established–don’t matter to me as much as whatever I was doing that made me late.”

  • Name

    I’ve found that having more clocks around the house is helpful. If I am relying on the microwave clock or my cell phone I am less likely to notice time elapsing and suddenly find myself behind schedule.

  • PetersonCA

    I can strongly vouch for the “get everything ready the night before routine”!I load my vehicle with every item that needs to go with everyone at any stop during the day before we go to bed. If there is something in the refrigerator, I put the keys on the shelf next to it. This really helps everyone think through tomorrow at the end of today. Best of all the permission slips to sign and checks to write get done at the table instead of the school drop off lane.
    I, too, find that extra clocks around the house help–especially one in each bathroom!

  • Amanda Pingel

    I found that I had an incorrect perception of how long it took me to get out of the house. It takes half an hour to get to work, so I would tell myself I need to leave at 9:15. Alas, I always ended up getting there at 10 instead of 9:45…

    I finally realized that I wasn’t leaving at 9:15. If I STARTED leaving at 9:15, I ended up actually walking out the door at 9:30. It takes that much time to get my shoes on, use the restroom, pack my bag, verify that I haven’t forgotten anything, etc.

    So now I tell myself that I have to leave 15 minutes earlier than I actually do. That gives me time for the difference between thinking-about-leaving and actually-leaving.

  • Great post!! When i used to be late often it was because I let little things distract me. Now that I’ve gotten over it, I see other people in my office doing the same thing. Drives me crazy! Thanks for posting

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  • gautamchaudhury

    I agree to this valuable findings

  • margaretvbsmith

    I have been chronically late for decades. After quite a bit of introspection, I came to the conclusion that I resented others making me wait. If I arrived late, the result was that others then had to wait for me. This was a most upsetting bit of self-discovery. I have obviously tried to change my behavior, but it isn’t always easy, especially after decades of behaving otherwise. I have tried to prepare in advance (before bed the night before, etc.) I really like your idea of taking a project that I can work on while I wait. That way, I won’t feel as if I’m wasting time, and I won’t force others to waste their time waiting on me.

  • Cass

    I recognise these. A couple of years ago I was put on a leadership development course and had to identify the things that were holding meback from promotion. After identifying ‘usual culprits’ like management skills and presentation skills, I realised that my chronic lack of organisation and chrnic lateness was behind a lot of my difficulties.
    For me, the simple answer of tacking current train times to the front door and a (pretty) pictorial diagram of all the things Igenerally need to take with me (security pass, purse, travel pass) has made the most enormous difference.
    Thanks, Gretchen, for a reminder of the things that used to make me late. Oh, and I got the joke.

  • Liz

    I used to underestimate how long it would take me to get somewhere, now I routinely add an extra half hour (or hour) to travel time, which is helpful.

    The problem with resetting your watch is that you often remember that it’s ten minute fast, and adjust yourself accordingly! So eventually I reset my watch between 10 and 20 minutes fast–without knowing exactly how fast it was. (A friend can do this for you). That way, even if I remember that I have more time than I think, I don’t know how much — it might be a lot less than I’d like! Since I stumbled upon this idea, I’ve been much better at turning up on time.

  • lea peace

    People who are chronically late communicate to the people they keep waiting that they are not a priority, that the people who are waiting are not as important as the person making them wait.

    If the message received is the message sent, (most likely from the unconsiousness of the chronically late person) the message sent is, “i am more important than you.” The need to tell someone this implies that the late person really believes otherwise. Perhaps they are chronically late because they need to do a stupid power play on someone.

    A useful tip for chronically late people – look more deeply at your motives and question the belief at their core. Maybe you really aren’t as unimportant as you are so desperately attempting to prove.

  • I’m an always on time person and could not understand at all how some people are always late. I finally sat down with them to find out why– getting beyond the “oh, there was traffic” reasons. Here was the main fear— that they would show up first and would look like a dork with nothing to do.
    So, then I asked–isn’t there something you want to read? write down? get done? I told them I often am the first one (because I’m on time) and I never arrive without some article I need to read or a pad of paper/pen to write down ideas (or even a grocery list). And now with smart phones and laptops– you can always reply to email or do work.
    So late people–stop freaking out that you might be the first person. Look at it as an opportunity to have some quiet time to get something done.

  • My mother was chronically late for everything and had a habit of leaving the house around the time we were supposed to BE somewhere… I always had issues with how she did that, but as I entered my 30’s I found I started doing the exact same thing! So did my brother in fact!  In a sense we all become our parents and I’m determined to stop the cycle, but it is not easy.  Which is strange because it seems like the easiest thing in the world- to just leave a little earlier…but in practice issues always seem to arise.

  • JudyK

    My former spouse was chronically late, and this meant that every time we were to attend something as a couple, since we went together, I would be late as well.
    Divorce solved that problem, and a lot of others. I so much enjoy being able to be punctual without the need for nagging, or a big fight about tardiness.
    Until I got out from under the problem I did not realise how defensive I always felt about our lateness.

  • Resa

    Thank You!! I’m taking this article list to heart because chronic lateness
    Has affected every area of my life…Id go to sleep too late, wake too late, arrive places too late, study too late…can’t remember anything because too tired brain, this article and some items on the list spoke my life , so I have posted the list on my wall as a guide to identify what’s potentially making me tardy and I’m working at fixing them…I’m an accomplished person but could have been even better if I didn’t have the tardy cloud aver me all the time….thanks for the tips I’m in my way to repairing my self esteem because of tardiness 🙂

  • Hummingbird

    Item 6: “You hate your destination so much you want to postpone showing up for as long as possible.” Oh dear. I fear they’ve hit the nail on the head. I am chronically late for work everyday because I hate my job. I have a job, where most of the time, people don’t know I’m late, so I haven’t had any adverse repercussions on the work front. I suppose I can organize myself and get to work on time (yes, it is stressful being late). But I’m not quite sure how to solve an “I hate my job so I’m late all the time,” especially since I’m in my 50s and need that almighty pension. Oh, to be independently wealthy.