How to Overcome Lateness and Be On Time: Part 2

Like many people, I really used to struggle with being on time. However, some basic planning and scheduling techniques have gone a long way to helping me someone who is (usually) on time.

This is the second part of a series. If you need motivation to put these skills into practice, do check out part 1.

Maintain an Appointments Diary

Now, you can’t be on time if I you can’t remember where you’re supposed to be or when you’re supposed to be there! Is your lateness a result of forgetting appointments or appointment times? Unfortunately, my memory isn’t all that I’d like it to be, so I keep an appointments diary.
As a bare minimum, each entry in my calendar has:

  • The date and time of each appointment
  • Where the appointment takes place
  • What the appointment is about (so I bring the right stuff)

There is a lot more that can be said about how to make the best of a diary, but for the purposes of timeliness, the main thing is to have a schedule and to stick to it.

If I have made an appointment with you, I owe you punctuality, I have no right to throw away your time, if I do my own.Richard Cecil

Agree a Precise Time

Are you vague about when you’re going to do something? If so, it is difficult to know if you’re on time at all. Rather than agree to meet at “4-ish” or “about 6:15”, it can help with your planning to know exactly when you’re supposed to do things.

Leave Gaps in Your Schedule

Do these statements ring true for you?

  • I often find myself rushing from one appointment to another.
  • I overestimate how much I can do in a set amount of time
  • Things often over-run, making me late for the next thing.
  • I often forget small things, and that make me late
  • Little crises add up and make me late

If so, your lateness is a result of over-scheduling: you’re trying to cram too much into too little time.

One way I use to overcome this problem is to leave blocks of time unscheduled. That way, if something unexpected happens, or if I find that I’ve forgotten about something important, then I can use that unscheduled time to deal with the resulting crisis.

If you can’t create gaps in your schedule because you’re too busy, then maybe you’re just too busy. But that’s another topic entirely.

Plan to Arrive Early

Even when you are on time, are you just on time? If so, it is time to adopt the old military adage:
If you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late!

There are several big benefits of planning to arriving early:

  • It gives you time to settle in to your new environment when you get there
  • People will think well of you
  • If the worst comes to the worst, it gives you an extra buffer for when there are unexpected delays (but you’re still late)

So, tell yourself that 5 minutes early is on time, because on time is 5 minutes late.

Plan Backwards

Do you find it difficult to plan a journey or other activity that involves several parts? If you, you need to learn to plan backwards. What I mean is this: when you make plans to be somewhere at a certain time, start at the destination and working back towards the start time. That way you’ll know exactly what time you need to leave to make sure that you’ll fit in with timetables etc.

Create a Buffer

Do you get caught out when things take longer than they should? Do unexpected delays often make you late? We all underestimate at times, and we all get caught out by unexpected events like breakdowns, computer failures and traffic jams. The best way to deal with these kinds of things is to pad your estimates to allow for the unpredictable.

Some writers suggest adding a blanket 25% to every time estimate. Personally, I think this approach is rather rigid, and prefer to adjust the margin depending upon the task. For every-day tasks that are easy to estimate accurately, which have a low-risk of going wrong, or which are of relatively low importance, I might add a lower margin. Where I am less sure of my estimates, or where there is a higher risk of delay, or where the task is extremely important to me, I might choose a larger margin.

However you choose to pad your estimates, the buffer you use is in addition to both your unscheduled time and your intention to arrive early.

Estimate Time Effectively

Do you tend to under-estimate how long things will take, things like journeys or preparation time? Is this a reason for your lateness? Improving your estimation skills will help you be on time.

Base Your Estimates on Good Information

One way to improve your estimation skills is to base your estimate on quality information that is already available to you. For example, journey times are relatively easy to estimate based on flight times, train or bus timetables and journey planners (In my experience, Google Maps is quite good for estimating car journeys).

When you use this information, do remember that it is based on an ideal, and that you may need to adjust your estimate based on the specifics of your situation. For example, rush-hour traffic, holiday traffic, bad weather and road works can significantly increase your journey times on the road.

Possibly the best source of good information on task times is simply to ask someone else who has more experience of that task than you. Remember, however, that someone with experience is likely to be quicker at a task than someone who is less familiar with it, so pad your estimates accordingly.

Include Peripheral Tasks in Your Estimates

A common mistake when estimating time is to ignore activities that are peripheral to the task itself. If, for example, you know that it takes half an hour to drive to the nearest cinema, it is tempting to imagine that if you start now then you’ll be at the box office in half an hour. Even ignoring unpredictable events such as traffic jams, this doesn’t take into account the time it takes to:

  • get everyone ready
  • get everyone out of the house and into the car
  • get petrol on the way
  • find a parking space
  • walk from the car to the cinema
  • get cash from the cash machine on the way
  • take a trip to the men’s / ladies’ room
  • buy popcorn

So, when you’re estimating, don’t forget that you may need to include time for preparation, travel, and clearing away afterwards.

Practice Estimating

The best way to improve your time estimation skills is to practice. I suggest the following simple steps:

  • Estimate how long it will take you to do something
  • Time yourself doing it
  • Compare your actual time with your estimate

I know of someone who does this for almost everything in his life: journey times, making meals, going shopping, everything. Whilst this sounds a little over-zealous to me, I must admit that his results speak for themselves: his estimation skills are legendary.

Wear a Watch

Do you ever ask other people what time it is? If so, is there anything you can do to remove this reliance on other people? After all, you can’t possibly be on time unless you know what time it is.

Personally, I wear a water-resistant digital because:

  • It was relatively inexpensive
  • It is fairly robust
  • Is easy to read
  • It keeps reasonably good time
  • Is easy to change for BST
  • Is always there when I need it

Of course, a watch is no good if you don’t have it with you, or if you don’t look at it, so I’ve developed habits to help me do so.

Put It All Together

Suppose you’re taking a taxi to the airport and that your flight leaves at 4 pm. You’ll need to be at the airport early (how early will depend on the airline – check if you aren’t sure). Let’s say 1 hour early. That means that you need to arrive at the airport at 2:45 (leaving a 25% margin). If it takes the taxi 1 hour to get to the airport (and you can phone the taxi company to check), then you’ll need to leave no later than 1:30 (again, leaving a 25% margin). That means that you’ll need the taxi to arrive at about 1:00 pm, allowing 15 minutes to get yourself and your baggage into the cab. It also leaves a little contingency in case of delays on the road. Be sure to book the taxi in advance – at least a few days – and to make sure that you’re ready to leave when the taxi arrives.

Next Time

That’s it for planning and scheduling. Next time I’ll deal with some practical tips on following through on with your plans.


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