7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged


Part One:  Running Late

My most vivid memory of Laura and Robert’s wedding is that I was late. It was a stiflingly hot summer day, and the ceremony was to take place at 5 p.m. on a country club golf course an hour’s drive from my home in San Francisco. By the time I finally sped into the parking lot, hair flying and tires squealing, it was 5:10 (well OK, 5:20). Sprinting madly across the manicured lawns of the club, I headed toward a gathering of people seated in a roped-off area near the eighteenth hole.

The wedding hadn’t yet started, so I wiped the sweat from my face, straightened my dress, and began to tiptoe down the center aisle to find a seat. Just as I started though, the string quartet struck up Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” The guests all rose and turned to watch for the bride, but what they saw in the middle of the aisle was me. As the music swelled, I frantically looked for an empty spot amid the packed seats, but couldn’t find a single chair. Suddenly I caught sight of the bride starting down the aisle a few yards behind me. She motioned for me to get out of the way, but with nowhere to sit and nowhere to hide, I could only smile, wave sheepishly, and try in vain to flatten myself against an aisle-side candelabra. As Laura drew nearer, I decided to make a break for it. Disentangling myself from the candelabra, I turned and dashed up the aisle toward the altar. Making a quick left in front of the surprised minister, I ran past the first row of guests, climbed over the velvet retaining rope and headed back ­toward the rear, where I remained, red faced, for the rest of the ceremony. Laura and Robert forgave me, but I still cringe with embarrassment when I relive that day.


Have you ever suffered through an incident like this?  If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population have trouble getting to where they’re going on time. The Punctually Challenged are everywhere. From homemakers to home builders, from CPAs to CEOs, we appear in all professions and join ranks with such reputedly late luminaries as former president Bill Clinton, supermodel Naomi Campbell, singers Cher, Wynonna, and Whitney Houston, and actors Robert Redford, Richard Gere, and Farrah Fawcett—who’s famous for running on what’s known as “Farrah time.”

Although some of the most talented and successful people in the country are devoted disciples of the adage “better late than never,” many more of us have been passed over for promotions, forfeited raises, and lost face with families and colleagues. While movie stars and politicians may wield enough power and influence to get away with living in the slow lane, for the rest of us, chronic tardiness can be a real liability. So if you’ve found yourself apologizing to irate dinner hostesses, pleading mercy from traffic cops, or inventing imaginative excuses once too often, this book is for you.

I am a former card-carrying member of the Punctually Challenged, and punctuality used to be my Achilles heel. I was suspended three times in junior high school for tardiness. I’ve been late for surprise parties, client presentations, court appearances, and classes for which I was the instructor. Planes, graduations, and funerals have left, started, and ended without me.

My arrival times embarrassed me and wreaked havoc in my personal and professional relationships. My friends and family members finally resorted to lying about the time an event began. If dinner was at 7:00, they told me 6:30. My assisstant took to scheduling meetings at 9:15, knowing I couldn’t reliably be counted on to show up any earlier. Evenings out on the town began with my husband calling, “I’m going down to start the car,” knowing I’d feel terribly guilty if I continued to dawdle with him in the driveway and the motor ­running (his and the car’s).

I hated being late and often resolved to improve my timeliness, but rarely with any success. One New Year’s Day, I finally got serious about it. “I’ll never be late again,” I announced to my husband.

Eyeing me with disbelief, he replied, “I have an idea. Why don’t you give yourself an extra fifteen minutes to get ready?” I thought about this remedy and realized it wasn’t quite that simple—it was like suggesting a dieter simply stop eating so much. Besides, I could get up at 6:00 a.m. and still be late to work at 9:00. It began to dawn on me that I might be getting something out of my frantic rushing, from the whirlwinds I created for myself. Being on time meant figuring out what that something might be and learning to live without it.

After much research and introspection, I discovered that the excitement of having to rush gave me a jolt that motivated and spurred me on. I found that my need for stimulation was caused by a tendency to feel easily bored and restless. Once I saw why I liked to hurry—why I preferred the sprint to the stroll—not only did I leave the ranks of the punctually challenged, I began to procrastinate less in general. I started to plan my time more effectively and to use more organization in my daily affairs. As I worked toward the goal of being more timely, I began to see the importance of becoming a reliable person. Developing that side of myself soon became a priority.

But it wasn’t easy. The truth is, chronic lateness can be a ­surprisingly difficult habit to overcome. Research indicates that in many ways, it’s like overeating. Just as the dieter wakes in the morning resolved not to overindulge, the late person vows to be on time for work. Yet, just as the dieter falls victim to the chocolate-covered doughnut, the straggler succumbs to the temptation to do one last thing before leaving the house. Resisting that sudden urge to make the bed, unload the dishwasher, water the plants, or finish a newspaper article can be nearly impossible.

While there are those who get a charge out of keeping others waiting—a condition I’ve found most prevalent among men (sorry guys)—if you’re typical, you dislike being late. Chances are you’ve tried more than once to reform. ­Following each fiasco, you’ve sworn your late days are over. You’ll turn over a new leaf, skip breakfast, get a new clock, stop shaving your legs in the morning. You’ve made all the right resolutions, yet tardiness remains your nemesis.

Biology or Psychology?

Psychologists have theories about late folks. Even Sigmund Freud had a hypothesis, believing lateness to be an anal characteristic. The child who had difficulty with toilet training, he hypothesized, would have a similarly challenging time when it came to other self-management tasks like punctuality.

Another look at the psychology of lateness comes from a 1991 Cleveland State University study in which trial participants underwent a number of psychological tests. Researchers found that the tardy subjects differed from their timely counterparts in a number of personality characteristics, with late people scoring measurably lower on nurturance and higher on both long and short-term anxiety.

Do late people really differ from the timely in certain personality characteristics? In 1997, I conducted a study in association with San Francisco State University, aimed at asking that question and determining what causes chronic lateness. We studied 225 people who were given a battery of personality tests and questioned about their attitudes and habits relating to punctuality. As it turned out, the late scored higher in several areas, including anxiety and distractibility, while placing somewhat below the timely in the areas of self-esteem and self-discipline.

Could Late People Perceive Time Differently?

Part of my research included a test to measure the differences in how timely and late people perceive the passage of time. The test I devised is a simple one you can try yourself. Choose three or four pages in a book, mark the time, and start reading. Stop reading when you think ninety seconds have elapsed, then check your watch to see how accurate you were. I found that early birds, almost without fail, stopped reading before ninety ­seconds had passed, while lateniks put their books down well ­after the ninety-second mark.

The researchers at Cleveland State University also included a time perception test in their study, this time using stop-watches. Interestingly, their results were similar to mine, with late people consistently underestimating the passage of time.

There are a number of theories for why these time-perception tests turned out the way they did. Although it’s feasible that late people perceive time differently, it’s likely there are other ­explanations as well. In later chapters, we’ll take a closer look at the possible reasons behind the results.

It’s Not Just Time Management

This is not merely a book about time management. Certainly, knowing how to be organized and efficient is key to being on time. And the importance of establishing priorities, setting goals, and proper planning cannot be overemphasized. However, consistent lateness is not caused by disorganization alone, and time-management skills in themselves won’t cure it.

Remember this important fact: Every time we perform an act, we get something out of it—a benefit. This is particularly true with negative habits. If there weren’t some kind of payoff, we wouldn’t continue them. Although we often suffer from our habits, we make decisions, consciously or not, based on the benefits versus the costs. One of the most important steps in changing any long-ingrained habit is figuring out what your particular benefit might be. Once you understand what’s going on in your mind when you’re late, you’re halfway there.

Although your goal may be simple—to be more punctual—when you untangle the roots of the problem, you’ll find yourself resolving other issues as well. You may be surprised to learn that the source of your lateness is something quite different than what you thought. It’s much like peeling an onion­—as you peel away the layers, you begin to see what’s below.

Peeling the Onion

Susan, a reformed latenik said it well:

“I’ve always had a number of bad habits—­procrastination and lateness among them—and I’ve struggled, usually without success, to overcome them. I realize now that I’ve been dealing with my habits on a superficial basis, never taking the time to really understand what was behind my behavior. Once I got on track, I began arriving at appointments and meetings early. Instead of the desperate dash to the finish line, I learned to walk in the door calmly. Now as I sit back and watch other people arriving late, flustered and apologetic, I have a quiet laugh to myself, reveling in the feeling of being so responsible and dependable.

“When I finally discovered the keys to overcoming my ­tardiness, I solved much more than I thought I would. Changing this lifelong habit gave me more self-confidence and  control over my life. I began to feel less like an anomaly, a butt of jokes. I imagine it’s the way people feel when they finally lose weight.”

In the chapters to come, I’ll discuss why punctuality is important, how you may have come to be chronically late, and what you can do to change. You’ll discover the 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged, and find exercises that correspond directly to your particular type of lateness.

The anecdotes contained in this book are based on the true stories of my clients and associates, and are ones you’ll undoubtedly relate to. While you’ll likely associate most closely to one particular lateness type, please look through the exercises in each chapter. You’ll find useful tools, such as tips for improving time perception and advice on overcoming procrastination, throughout the book. Although there are dozens of exercises, choose only four or five initially to start you on your way. When you’ve mastered those and are ready, select a few more. 

Please be sure to review A Few Words on Successful Habit Changing near the end of the book. These summarize some fundamental habit breaking concepts, and will help you to stay focused on your goals.

Last but not least, I've included a chapter for the early birds in your life. Pass this along to your friends, family, and associates, as it will help them better understand and support you as you work through the process of changing.





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