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You either know one or you are one—someone who is notoriously late, from work meetings to lunch dates, gym hours to the movies. Some call it laziness, rudeness, or attention-seeking, but research shows that the common causes of chronic lateness are two misperceptions: (1) how long a task will take to complete and (2) how long a minute lasts.

How Long Is This Going to Take?

Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again, asked people to read from a book for what they felt was ninety seconds. Those who tend to be early stopped reading before the clock hit the ninety-second mark; those who are typically late read for longer than the allotted period.

This, in microcosm, is evidence that tardy people tend to think they can do more in a day than is truly feasible. There is always something that can get in the way of our plans—a distraction, an urgent phone call, traffic, spilled coffee, or all of the above. If you don’t start with a realistic perception of how long a task will take, then even a generous time buffer may not be enough to get you to your commitment on time, let alone early.

DeLonzor recommends “writing down your daily habits and then estimating how long you think it takes you to do each one—then spend a week or so writing down how long each thing actually takes.” The more specific you are, the more effective your list. “Go to lunch” involves a lot more steps than simply walking out the door. First, you must wrap up your current task and mentally transition to the next one. You may need to change clothes or pack your bag. Is there something you often misplace? Add time to find it. With concrete numbers, you can better plan your day and be sure not to over-schedule. It is possible—and both personally and professionally worthwhile—to retrain your brain to factor these considerations into your getting-out-the-door formula.

Even a New York Minute Is Only Sixty Seconds

Chronic lateness may also be attributed to personality type. A series of studies found that “type A individuals [those who are goal-oriented] estimated that a minute passed in fifty-eight seconds, compared with seventy-seven seconds for type B individuals [who are more laid-back].” It may be that the same traits that make type B people late are those that make them optimistic and hopeful. But a minute is a minute, and there are some situations when it’s just not OK to be ten minutes late.

To put your minute-by-minute plan into action, you might set three or more alarms for when you need to start finishing up a task, preparing to leave, and when you need to be out the door, so time doesn’t slip away. If you ever find yourself on the sidewalk waiting for directions to load on your GPS, you can be sure you've already lost five minutes.

Tricks of the Timely Trade

For some (hand raised!), smartphones offer too many potential distractions to stay on task. Multitasking isn’t always a good thing—even for our devices. Consider investing in a wristwatch. Try this sustainably produced one with a cork band, a vintage watch from the vast selection on Etsy, or something handmade and unique to you. Choose something you want to look at and wear every day. Make checking the time often a habit, and you’ll find you’re more in control of what you’re doing and when.

If you’re still concerned that arriving early means you’ll end up wasting time, create a reward system for yourself. Reserve certain enjoyable pastimes for your on-site wait time—download a podcast or book to your phone, grab a cup of coffee, or allow yourself a bit of online shopping.

Psychologists say that chronic lateness can also be a symptom of “more serious health conditions such as ADHD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia.” If you are experiencing other symptoms of anxiety, talk to a mental health care provider.

We’re all going to be late or miss an appointment now and then, but it doesn’t need to be more frequent than that. Even in today’s high-energy, super-booked world, the early bird still gets the worm.

Photo Credit: Han Chau