Timekeeping is something I’ve struggled with all my life.
Although I never miss work deadlines or join Zoom meetings late, when I have to get myself somewhere on time, it’s a different story.
Despite having got ready to go out a zillion times by now, I still seem to have only a vague idea how long actually takes. I always leave the minimum time for my journey, assuming that everything will go smoothly because, in my world, signal failures and heavy traffic don’t exist.
And I never factor in time for last-minute hitches, such as the discovery of a big hole in my tights just as I’m about to leave, or the realisation that the car is parked several streets away.
I know I’m far from alone in this. My friends tend to fall into two categories: the punctual ones who give me an earlier meeting time – I’ve got wise to that now, of course – and those with whom I have a tacit agreement that our 11am coffee will actually take place at 11.20(ish).
My chronic lateness has caused me untold stress, and jeopardised jobs and friendships. I don’t mean to be flaky, rude or thoughtless but, like a lot of perpetually late people, I seem to be powerless to break the habit.
So, with the help of some expert advice, can I finally change my behaviour?
Why are some people always late?
The first step is to identify the characteristics that underly persistent lateness. It’s often a combination of reasons, says chartered clinical psychologist, Linda Blair.
‘Some people are under-confident avoiders,’ Linda tells Metro.co.uk. ‘They’re unsure of themselves and may be reluctant to try something new.
‘This can cause them to put off getting ready and getting themselves there.’
If you’re always late for work, it may be worth asking yourself if you’re unhappy in your job or are finding it very stressful, so are using an unconscious avoidance strategy. Not being a morning person can also be a major factor.
Other people are just eternal optimists and automatically assume that they can do all the things they’ve planned and nothing could possibly happen to hold them up.
Then there’s the pathological over-committer, who wants to please everyone and finds it impossible to say no – so ends up frazzled with too much on their plate.
Disorganisation and a tendency to be distracted can affect us all, but they’re common traits in neurodivergent people, particularly those with ADHD.
Many have difficulties with executive function, a set of skills responsible for things like organisation and time management. ‘Time blindness’, or an inability to sense the passing of time, may also affect people with ADHD.
Strategies for developing punctuality
‘If you have a longstanding lateness habit your brain becomes wired that way so it’s hard to change,’ says Somia Zaman, a psychotherapist specialising in CBT and EMDR, who works out of My Therapy Rooms. ‘It’s something you really have to persevere with.’
In fact, psychologists say the average time needed to break a bad habit is 66 days.
So, how do we do it?
Work on your organisation
‘Some people find it very difficult to put the steps together to get themselves somewhere on time, but it’s something that can be improved with practice,’ says Somia. It’s all about learning to think ahead.
‘You’re less likely to be on time if you’re not sure what you’re wearing or haven’t got around to doing the washing.
‘In my house, keys and phones are constantly going walkabout so before going to bed, I make sure that things I need are in their proper place.’
In my own experience, being disorganised inevitably leads to rushing and this just makes you later rather than earlier. As my gran used to be fond of saying: ‘more haste, less speed’. I know that if I’m rushing, I’m more likely to ladder my tights, or get makeup on my top and have to get changed.
Cut out distractions
It’s all too easy to think you’ll just send that quick work email before you go out, but it often takes that crucial few minutes longer than you imagine.
‘You need to develop the habit of thinking: do I need to deal with this right now?’ says Somia. ‘It’s almost always something that can be addressed later.’
It’s also important to identify things that can suck you in and make you lose track of time – for me, it’s often mindless scrolling on social media. I’ve learnt that you need to put an absolute ban on these things in the run-up to going out.
Empathise with those who’ll be waiting on you
Think about the effect your lateness has on others, advises Linda: ‘That’s a strong motivator, as most of us have come out of the pandemic realising that what matters most is our relationships and social connections.
‘If you have an 11am dental appointment, think about the people coming after you and the fact they may be in pain, or the emotions they’ll be having, given they may have been waiting a long time to get an appointment because of the pandemic.
‘Just thinking that someone will be annoyed with you is not empathy; it’s a subconscious way of telling yourself that you matter, but that’s not the same as really considering the feelings they’re experiencing.’
Learn to say no
The over-committers among us need to set some new boundaries, says Linda.
‘We all need breaks in our diary,’ she tells us. ‘One of the things I hope will stick with us from Covid is that it’s great not to do so much.
‘Don’t try to please everybody, and be sure you learn to say no to enough things so you can focus properly on the things you are going to do.’
Focus on the positives of being early
Most perpetually late people are well aware of the bad impression it creates, but it’s often useful to switch your focus to the benefits of being early, says Somia.
‘If I can get my daughter to school five minutes before the school gates open, it’s really great for me as I can get a good parking spot, so that really works as an incentive,’ she advises. ‘And being early shows that you’re organised, committed and you value this meeting or experience.’
I tried being an early person – here’s how it went
I’m definitely a mix of optimist and disorganised person so, armed with the above tips, I’m ready to turn over a new leaf when I meet an always-punctual friend at the theatre.
I need to be there at 7pm… oh no, wait. The play starts at 7pm so I need to be there at 6.45 at the latest.
I approach it like a military operation. The evening before, I set an alarm to remind me to check Google to see what the traffic will be like at the time I need to travel.
At lunchtime, I check the weather forecast, get out the appropriate outfit and find an umbrella. I set another alarm for when I need to start getting ready, doubling the time I usually allow myself.
At 6.30, I’m sitting on the bus, nearing the venue and feeling rather smug, relaxed and ready to enjoy the evening.
When my friend arrives, the tickets are ready to scan on my phone, I’ve been to the loo, and am chilling with the glasses of wine I’ve bought for us to take into the auditorium.
The surprise on her face is a picture. I really think I could get used to this.
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