How to Overcome Lateness and Be On Time: Part 1

Are you, like Alice’s White Rabbit, always running late? Have you ever wondered if there is anything you can do to improve your time keeping?

This article is born from my own experience. There was a time when I was late for more-or-less everything. For the first 25 years of my life I was habitually late:

  • For school
  • With homework
  • For social events
  • For University lectures
  • With assignments
  • For work
  • For parties
  • For buses and trains
  • For dates
  • For dinner
  • For bed

Nowadays, however, I am on time for… well… most things. I’m still not perfect, but I have made progress beyond anything I could have imagined back then. There isn’t anything special about me (not in this regard, anyway), so I am convinced that anyone can improve their timekeeping if they really want to. I hope that some of the experiences and insights in this article will help you with any lateness-issues that you’re experiencing.

Be Honest with Yourself

The first step in changing any habit is the same: you need to recognize that something in your life is less than idea. It isn’t always easy to face up to a problem with chronic lateness. If you’re like me, you will find yourself justifying your behaviour with phrases like these:

  • I wasn’t really late
  • I was only a little bit late
  • It didn’t really matter
  • They know me! They make allowances for me being late
  • It isn’t as if I’ve missed anything important
  • Nobody missed me
  • Other people were even later
  • It wasn’t my fault that I was late

None of this, however, made any difference to the fact that I often found myself:

  1. Arriving for things after the agreed start time
  2. Missing the beginnings of things
  3. Apologizing for being late

If you find yourself doing any of these things on a regular basis, then the truth is that you have a problem with lateness. No amount of rationalization is going to change that! There is good news, however: recognizing the problem is the first step to finding a solution.

Take Responsibility for Your Own Behaviour

The second step to changing your habits is to take responsibility for your habits. Again, this isn’t always easy. All to often I find myself making excuses:

  • There is nothing I can do about it
  • This is just who I am
  • I was brought up this way
  • Everyone else does it
  • I’m too old to change
  • It really isn’t that important
  • It isn’t my fault
  • I’ve tried before and failed
  • I don’t know where to start

Now, there is a grain of truth in some of these statements, however, I doubt that your time-keeping is completely out of your control. So, whilst I can’t guarantee that you can fix all of your time keeping problems, I do know this: if you keep finding reasons why you can’t change, you’ll never change any of them. So, stop making excuses and change what you can.

For example, in my case it didn’t help that, when I was growing up, being late was “normal”. My parents, who were awesome in so many ways, were not always great models of punctuality (I’m sure they had their reasons). But I’m not my parents, and I’ve learned that being late doesn’t have to be normal for me.

Know Why Timekeeping is Important

If you want to change your behaviour you’ll need motivation. An important part of overcoming lateness is knowing why being on time matters so much.

Understand the Negative Effect of Your Lateness

When I was chronically late, I was well aware of the problems that my lateness caused me. But, I often overlooked the impact of my lateness on others. This is partly because many of these problems were experienced by people before I even arrived, and when I did finally turn up, I was often in such a rush that I didn’t notice other people’s frustration and disappointment.

I have noticed that the people who are late are often so much jollier than the people who have to wait for them.E. V. Lucas

Moreover, people became resigned to the fact that I was always late – although I realize now that people’s tolerance of my bad habits is certainly no excuse for them.

Some of the problems that my lateness caused for other people included:

  • It caused anxiety and frustration when people wonder when – or even if – you’ll ever turn up
  • People felt guilty if they don’t wait for me
  • If people did wait for me, I often made them late, too
  • My arriving late was disruptive of things that had already started
  • People considered me unreliable and untrustworthy
  • People missed out on my company whilst they were waiting
  • My lateness was manipulative, in that I expected other people to change their behaviour to accommodate me
  • I was being disrespectful, and people were aware of that fact

Unfaithfulness in the keeping of an appointment is an act of clear dishonesty. You may as well borrow a person’s money as his time.Horace Mann

Understand the Benefits of Timeliness

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like that. But consider a world where you are usually on time:

  • You won’t miss out on the beginnings of things
  • You won’t miss out altogether (when ships sail, planes fly, or people don’t wait)
  • You won’t always be rushing, so you’ll make fewer mistakes
  • You will have time to compose yourself when you arrive
  • You won’t always be playing catch-up
  • It will make you look reliable
  • You won’t feel guilty
  • Your self-esteem will improve
  • You’ll be ready for action
  • You won’t have to apologize
  • You’ll have time to find your seat
  • You’ll have time to chat before things start
  • You will be on time for the next thing because you won’t still be catching up on the last thing

As the poet said:

Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.William Shakespeare

Doesn’t timeliness sound like something worth pursuing?

Know What You’re Giving Up

The other thing to consider before you try to improve your timekeeping is this: what will it cost you?

I say this because, regardless of any negatives associated with lateness, there may also be benefits that you’ll struggle to give up. Thinking this through carefully will help you prepare for some of the difficulties you’ll meet on your journey to change, and may also help you decide whether it is worth embarking on this change process at all.

In my case, I was often late for things because I perceived that being early was more uncomfortable. I hated all the waiting around. I often became bored and anxious, and found the social chit-chat among the early birds both unnecessary and difficult. At the same time, I thought it ruse to arrive before other people were ready for me, but neither did I want to stand around outside in the cold or the rain. Finally, I found that I enjoyed the sense of urgency that lateness provided, I enjoyed the adrenaline and felt that I worked well under pressure.

Now, your list will almost certainly be different from mine. But like me, you will find that each of your personal benefits of lateness falls into one of three categories:

  1. Some are unfounded. In other words, they were imaginary benefits of lateness.
  2. Some are legitimate but important, because they are far outweighed by the benefits  of being on time.
  3. A few may be real issues, at least some of the time.

If you do have real issues with giving up lateness, I suggest that your best course of action is to continue to be late, but only in situations where you have a genuine need. Be careful – it is easy to fool yourself – but when you really can’t change something you would be foolish to waste your energy on trying. At least you will be positively and intentionally late, instead of accidentally or habitually late, which is a kind of progress in itself.

Coming Up Next

In a future article I plan to discuss some of the practical steps that you can take to help you overcome lateness. But in the mean time, consider this: it is never too late to overcome your habit of lateness.


  • Illustration adapted from an original by Sir John Tenniel, circa 1865.