Some People (Like Me) Are Always Late, But Don't Judge — We Have A Valid Reason

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

Hi, my name is Christie and I am chronically, infuriatingly, shamefully late. I am late for meetings and for phone calls and for cocktails with friends. I am late with birthday cards and returning emails. I’m late to pick up my kids from baseball practice and late to get food out of the oven.

Phone reminders and alarms don’t help. I’ve tried them all. Despite my best intentions, I am perpetually late.

I was raised with a steady diet of promptness. My dad, who was a volunteer coach for decades, drilled into me and the other athletes the mantra of “If you’re five minutes early, you’re on time, and if you’re on time, you’re late.”

Well, I’m not just “on-time” late; I’m late-late. Sorry, Dad.

To be clear, I’m not extraordinarily late. More like 5-10 minutes. But it still drives my family bonkers. It drives me bonkers too, for that matter. It’s stressful and embarrassing. I feel out of control and lacking, like everyone is somehow able to get through their day on time except me.

There’s a common perception that people who are constantly late are selfish or lazy, but that isn’t true. Our brains just work differently. According to BBC, psychology experts say that personality differences and even positive characteristics like optimism make people “punctually-challenged.”

“Late people often have a sunny outlook,” wrote Philippa Perry in the Guardian. “They are unreasonably optimistic about how many things they can cram in and how long it takes to get from the office to the restaurant, say, especially if it is nearby.”

So it’s not just me then. Phew.

Tardiness can also be caused by struggles with transitions. Personally, this is a big one for me. I have a really hard time shifting gears — when I’m in the “flow” with one task, I find it damn near impossible to stop and shift to something else. So I put off the shifting until it’s panic time.

We can also have trouble assessing the passage of time. Jeff Conte, a psychology professor at San Diego State University ran a study in 2001 where he asked participants to judge, without a clock, how long it took for a minute to pass. Type A people (often ambitious and competitive) believed a minute had passed at about the 58-second mark. By contrast, Type B people (often creative, reflective, and explorative) guessed that a minute had gone by after 77 seconds. (When I tried this experiment, I clocked in at 110 seconds, mostly because I became distracted with another activity and forgot about the test.)

For some, chronic tardiness can be caused by anxiety or other mental health challenges. For instance, people with anxiety may avoid certain situations, Harriet Mellotte, a cognitive behavioral therapist and a clinical psychologist in training in London told BBC. “Individuals with low self-esteem are likely to be critical about their abilities which may cause them to take more time to check their work.” And a symptom of depression may be low energy, making that much harder to find the motivation to “get a move on.”

Personally, my chronic tardiness is caused by all of the above. I am overly optimistic when estimating how long (or rather, not long) something will take, whether it’s a commute, the time to log in to a Zoom call, or finishing the task I’m currently on. The drive to meetings across town always take 15 minutes, but I am forever telling myself that it only takes 12 minutes because traffic will be light this time and every light will be green on my route. Then I’m shocked when this doesn’t happen. Like legitimately shocked. I struggle with transitions and social anxiety, so I’m late for meetings and parties.

Unfortunately, all these justifications (or are they excuses?) for our lateness don’t really matter to the folks who are left waiting for us. We can hope for patience and understanding, but it only goes so far. And it seems that the best way to stop being late is to make an intentional choice to be on time. Experts suggest setting alarms and times, increasing estimates for commuting, avoiding multitasking, and trying that same tactic my dad preached all those years ago.

Because for the chronically late, the effort to be early just might result in being on time. Or maybe not quite as late.

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