The Frustration of Chronic Lateness

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For a good percentage of us work-a-day-grumblers, three little words habitually accompany our entrance to work, a meeting, a luncheon or even getting home from work: “Sorry, I’m late.” Does this sound like you?

For a good percentage of us work-a-day-grumblers, three little words habitually accompany our entrance to work, a meeting, a luncheon or even getting home from work: “Sorry, I’m late.” Does this sound like you?

Hello cubicle cutoff, open space overdue, corner office out of luck, home den delayed and coffee shop sluggish. My name is Brock Armstrong and I am… not the Workplace Hero. We’re on that trajectory together, you and I. You can think of me as your very chatty co-pilot.

Before we get started, if you enjoy this podcast and the tips and strategies it contains, I encourage you to visit That is the wellness coaching business that I run. Whether you are wanting to slim down, run a 10k or a marathon, race in a triathlon, pack on some muscle, clean up your diet, or get ripped, I will create a plan for you. No cookie cutter programs allowed. Just 100% tailored programs that fit around your life’s commitments. And for being a Workplace Hero, I will give you a special deal on your first 3 months of coaching. Head over to and send me a note mentioning this podcast episode so I can start building you the perfect program to meet your wellness goals.

Let me set the stage for you - It’s Monday morning. In a surprise turn of events, you wake up feeling great! You had a fun weekend of good sleep, good food, fresh air and exercise, and aside from the one drink-drink you had with dinner on Saturday night, you adhered to your long term plan extremely well.

Sadly, something goes wonky with the kids, or you take a little too long chatting with that cute barista, or doing your morning journalling, or spacing out on your coffee cup, and you find yourself running late. “Not again!” you think to yourself. “I hate being late!”

For a good percentage of us work-a-day-grumblers, three little words habitually accompany our entrance to work, a meeting, a luncheon or even getting home from work:

“Sorry, I’m late.”

Does this sound like you?

A ton of studies have looked into why some of us are chronically late. The truth is that there are many reasons why people just can’t get somewhere on time. But there seems to be one common thread running through the behaviour of chronically late individuals that may be a universal reason for their perpetual tardiness—and it is a surprising one:

People are late because they don’t want to be early.

Most of us know people who are always on time because they hate being late. I fall smack dab into this category; in fact, I’m freakishly scared of being late. I often arrive places embarrassingly early, which sometimes prompts me to hide out somewhere around the corner, playing with my phone, just so people don’t notice just how early I actually got there.

Because people like me hate to be tardy, we always appear to be on time (even if it is because we hid in a stairwell playing Kwazy Kupcakes on our phone for 20 minutes). But just as we hate to be late, another cohort hates to be early. And if you ask them, these anti-early birds say that they really want to be punctual—they just prefer to be right on time than to be early.

Wanting to avoid being early, then, is a strong motivation for why many people who are chronically late and honestly it is hard to reconcile these two competing ideals.

So why does this second group hate to be early? There are many reasons but here are a few that I found at

1. It’s inefficient. Being early requires having to sit around with nothing to do (or play with your phone). The waiting time is just short enough that you can’t get into any other project; as soon as you do, the time is up.

2. They hate the uneasiness of being early. They feel awkward and uncomfortable waiting. They might even feel as if others are watching and judging them, whether this is true or not. Arriving a few minutes early makes you feel proud and confident, but arriving too early can make you feel foolish. You fear others might think that you have no life aside from this event, and you don’t want people to think that your time isn’t valuable either.

3. There is an opportunity cost associated with getting somewhere early. Just as someone else’s time is valuable and you want to respect it by being punctual, so too is your time valuable and you'd rather use it productively than wait around inefficiently. This is a behaviour I saw time and time again with a CEO friend of mine. He was so obsessed with not wasting a moment of his time that he would see a 3-minute window as a chance to get another call done which inevitably took longer than 3 minutes and would start a cascade of lateness for the remainder of the day.

4. Sometimes you do not want to be early to be polite. You may not want to disturb someone by getting there too soon—say, a friend’s dinner party—so you would actually rather get there a little late.

In an article at the Huffington Post called: This Is Why You're Late All The Time (And What To Do About It), Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again says “Lateness is really a commonly misunderstood problem. Yes, it's a rude act, but I've interviewed hundreds of people and the vast majority of late people really dislike being late, they try to be on time, but this is something that has plagued them throughout their lives. Telling a chronic late person to be on time is like telling a dieter, 'Don't eat so much.'"

And it's often a problem that begins early in life. For many people, it started in childhood, and they're late for not only things that have to do with other people, but things that will only hurt themselves. They'll show up to the gym, for instance, 10 minutes before it closes, or they'll even be late for important appointments like job interviews.

Part of DeLonzor’s research included a test to measure the differences in how timely and late people perceive the passage of time. The test she devised is a simple one that 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. DeLonzor found that early birds, almost without fail, stopped reading before ninety ­seconds had passed, while the late-ers put their books down well ­after the ninety-second mark.

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

There are many many more studies, papers, opinions and theories as to why people are chronically late but we don’t have time to get into all of them in this episode. But what we will do is look at 5 potentially helpful strategies that you can implement if you are one of those always in a hurry and yet always late individuals. And yes, if you are a late person, this is your homework.

1. Reevaluate how long your routines really take. Late people tend to remember the one time they got ready in 20 minutes (instead of 40) or the one time they got to work in seven (instead of 15) minutes. Try 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. It's time to relearn how to tell time.

2. Change your thoughts, not just your behaviour. Reframing the way you think about punctuality can be an effective cognitive trick. Instead of stressing about it, sit down with a pen and paper (when you're not in a rush) and jot down all the positives that come with being on time. That is from Teri Bourdeau, a clinical associate professor of behavioural sciences at Oklahoma State University. You might write, for example, that being timely will make you look more responsible, or that it will stir up less conflict with co-workers. Think about the things that are going to motivate you to be on time, and remember them the next time you're trying to cram in too much before a deadline.

3. Get down with downtime. Eternally tardy people, particularly those like my CEO friend that I described earlier, often like to pack in as many activities as possible to maximize productivity, which can make any extra waiting time uncomfortable. One option for coping is to plan out an activity you can do when spare minutes creep up but avoid things like email or returning phone calls as those can easily expand beyond the time available and then you are right back where you started.

Now my favourite option is to reframe downtime as something to enjoy between all the rushing -- luxury time instead of wasted time. A big part of the enjoyment of life is just sitting back and talking to the person next to you or looking at the sky or spacing out. Never underestimate the value of a good space-out.

4. Budget your time differently. Timely people will give themselves round numbers to get somewhere -- 30 minutes, for instance. The chronically late, on the other hand, often budget exact times, like 23 minutes, to get somewhere, a habit that DeLonzor calls "split second timing," which doesn't account for the inevitable delays that inevitably pop up. If you're magically arriving exactly “on time,” that means you engaged in split second timing and you probably should not consider yourself to be “on time” unless you're actually “a few minutes early.”

5. Reschedule your day. Habits tend to be reflexive patterns of behaviour and what we need to do is change that pattern. To do that, you can start writing appointments down 30 minutes before they actually happen, which will help you start planning before the last second (kind of like purposely setting a clock 10 minutes ahead to try to fool yourself into being early). Another way to reschedule your day is to reevaluate your to-do list -- chances are, you're simply not going to get everything done. For more info on To-Do lists, check out the podcast episode at It’s a listener fave!

If you're trying to motivate someone else to stop being chronically late, remember that while Benjamin Franklin espoused the virtues of being early to bed and early to rise, there have always been others who agree instead with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said: “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.” As an early person, I find that statement pithy and fun but it also kind of irks me.

In 2013, HuffPost blogger Greg Savage asked the question, "How Did It Get to be OK for People to Be Late for Everything?" And if the 350,000 Facebook likes (and counting) on his post are any indication, he's not the only one wondering. This is what Savage wrote:

It's simply that some people no longer even pretend that they think your time is as important as theirs. And technology makes it worse. It seems texting or emailing that you are late somehow means you are no longer late. Rubbish. You are rude. And inconsiderate.

But while the behaviour of keeping someone waiting on you is, decidedly, rude, it doesn't necessarily mean your tardy friend is doing it on purpose, or that he or she is a rude, inconsiderate person -- in fact, as we have explored and learned here today, there are many psychological and perhaps even physiological components that can contribute to being perpetually late.

Which leaves me at a very unsatisfying impasse. I want to shake my fists at late people and some how to punish them into changing their ways but I know that won’t work. But at the same time, I don’t want to just shrug it off and try to be ok with being the one who has to call hospital emergency rooms looking for missing friends. But at this point, my Workplace Heroes, I have no answer for you other than to say, thank goodness I have more than just Solitaire to fiddle with on my phone. And now, I guess I will just cue the sound effects and take us home.


Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong in rainy downtown Vancouver. Artwork by Ken Cunningham and music by my old band, The Irregular Heartbeats. You can find our one album on iTunes or CD Baby if you want to hear more.

The Frustration of Chronic Lateness
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