Bullish: Boost Your Career by Never Being Late Again (It’s Not Actually Cute)

There are lots of things — such as having your phone turned off for not paying the bill and deciding not to shave your pits because you love nature — that are sort of cute when you’re young and adorable and become increasingly grotesque as you age. There’s a life cycle on hapless damsel-in-distress behavior — even Sandra Bullock has outlived her ability to play a winsome, helpless idiot in our nation’s romantic comedy industry.

So, now that it’s late January and our New Years Resolutions have likely been shed like so much dead skin on the loofah of our discontent, I’ll throw something new out there — if you are habitually late, how about a late-January resolution to cut it out?

I find that late people often have no idea just how much other people hate them. The prettier the late girl, the more oblivious she often is. And we all grow less pretty with time, so growing less late would probably be a good plan. The nature of lateness, of course, is that the part during which the other person is angriest at you is inherently the part you’re not there for. If you’re late to meet multiple people, that gave them a chance to bond over being angry at you, and then to subtly bond again when you arrive and they glance at each other like, “What an asshole, but watch how good I am at being professional and glossing over it!” and then they smile at you like it’s not a big deal but make eye contact with each other because they have a secret with each other, and that secret is that you’re an asshole and they’re showing off being magnanimous.

I wrote in Social Class in the Office about things that might be holding you back that you’re not aware of. On the topic of lateness — everyone knows not to be late to an interview or something that is explicitly a business meeting, but I’ve also written before about how networking isn’t so much about finding people more powerful than you and getting them on your side; it’s more about making actual, normal friends, who, around the age of 28, start to have really bitchin’ cool jobs. All the sudden you run into someone from college, and you’re like, “Alli! How are you? Still showing your crotch at frat parties, you big slut?” And then she hands you a card that says ‘Director of New Programming’ at MTV or something. So, being late to meet even regular people your own age is risking an unnecessary amount of bridge-burning.

Once, I made a lunch date with an entrepreneur I knew from Facebook but hadn’t gotten to spend much time with. It was Monday when we spoke; lunch was Wednesday. Wednesday at 1, and then 1:30… and she never shows. Fortunately, I had suggested a place near my apartment where I eat alone regularly, and the strip steak was delicious.

The next day, a message rolls in: “I’m so sorry! I was working on something in my apartment and just completely forgot! My friends know I’m totally oblivious to time — they know they have to call and remind me every time they want me to go somewhere.”


Nope, that’s not a thing. There’s no person who is innately oblivious to time, as though it were a genetic disorder. We all have values; if someone is perpetually late, she’s getting something out of it — feeling more important than other people, advertising herself as an artsy free spirit, denying her own mortality by refusing to acknowledge the linear march of time, marking her territory like a dog who pisses on clocks.

I used to be late a lot. I’d say I was late more than 50% of the time between 2001 and 2005. I analyzed the problem and have since reduced my lateness by at least 90%. One thing that should clue you in that lateness is harming you — remember the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf? If you’ve ever been legitimately, beyond-your-control late because your train was stopped underground for an hour with no air conditioning and you’re sweaty and thirsty and, after the first 50 minutes, you considered publicly peeing in a Snapple bottle, wondering if the old ladies sitting on either side of you would agree to hold up a wall of sweaters for you to pee behind — and when you tell this story to those you are late to meet, they just shrug? Yes, that’s probably because you’ve made up some late train stories before. When you’ve used up all your late-credit, no one believes you when you are legitimately late.

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    • Jessica Pauline Ogilvie

      This is awesome. I’ve been a chronic late person for years and had the same realization — that it was a really shitty way to be — a couple years ago. I’ll say that it’s a really hard habit to break because of the reasons you outline — planning for the entire amount of time, including travel, that each event will take. It’s still a bit of a work in progress but it’s so worth it! It’s way less stress, and I have a lot more self-respect when I don’t have to come into lunch dates babbling “I’m sorry” repeatedly and knowing that there’s really no good reason for my friends to continually forgive my bad habit.

      Anyway, good inspiration here to keep working at it! Thanks!

    • TB

      Can wholeheartedly relate to this article. My partner is perpetually late and I am a time nazi who abhors tardiness. For those inevitable 20 minutes he ALWAYS makes me wait I am simultaneously annoyed at him and annoyed at myself for knowing he will be late yet refusing to be late myself. Grrr

    • georgeelliot

      Thank you for another fine article. I tend to think of habitual lateness as a kind of passive-aggressive behavior through which the late person is trying to assert his or her own superiority. Almost everyone regards everyone else as bit-players in a real-life soap opera in which they are the star, and being late all the time is often a way to reinforce that world-view, but doesn’t take into consideration the fact that to the person waiting for you to show up, you are the bit-player and they are the star. It reminds me of a quote I read recently: The entire world, with one trifling exception, consists of other people.

      Anyway, thanks for the insightful article.

    • Thaler

      Great post! I would like to point out, though, that it’s not always an issue of underestimating/not caring how long it takes to get somewhere–some people are bad at keeping track of time before then. So one might say, “I have to leave at 12:45,” and then suddenly you look at the clock and it’s 12:42 and you’re still in your pajamas and where the hell did that time go? I know I often think I’m ready to leave the house only to realize there were three other things I had to do, like find that other shoe and pack that shirt I borrowed from you and take out the trash. What advice do you have for people who are constantly ~15 minutes late, rather than 3 hours, because of disorganization/bad clock-watching?

      (Being in theatre has helped a bit, due to the saying, “Early is on time and on time is late.” If rehearsal starts at 10, a good stage manager has your number up on her phone, her finger over the send button, at 9:59.)

      • Jen Dziura

        I find that such people are rarely late to really exciting things; they often get to the movies on time, knowing that the universe isn’t going to hold the film for them (or save them a seat). The late person still has some underlying motivation; she’s getting something out of identifying as a blithe devil-may-care-fairy.

        On a practical level, I could say “count backwards from when you have to leave,” but that sounds a little … basic. I find that, when I’m just doddering around not knowing what to do with myself, the best thing to do is something you know you’re going to have to do anyway, which is usually getting physically ready — it’s routine, brainless, and unavoidably necessary. This sometimes means I’m wearing a suit three hours before I have to leave the house (but with lots of other things that need to get done), but it’s better than getting distracted and still being in your PJs.

        Oh, and most importantly, don’t think of yourself as “bad at keeping track of time.” If you had thought of yourself as “bad at reading” when you were three, you might never have learned. You’re just someone who hasn’t mastered a skill yet. It’s a skill that can be mastered.

        Hope that helps!

      • Ariel

        I do this too, now, and I hate it. I used to be one who always got there first. I don’t even understand what happened.

    • Often Late

      But isn’t punctuality often arbitrary? If you’re meeting someone for a coffee (and you don’t both have to be back in your offices an hour later), why is it so terrible to have to sit and people-watch, or read your book, for ten minutes? Why is someone considered less of a good worker if they show up at their workplace ten minutes late? It arguably reveals something about their reliability – but does it really?

      You can be not great at scheduling things on-the-dot, but at the same time still be absolutely dependable. I would argue that in a great many situations, what ultimately counts is following through on promises, being respectful to the specifics of a situation, and being willing to go the extra mile when necessary – not simply being good at adhering to routine.

      I spent my undergraduate years in a country where the academic quarter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_quarter_%28class_timing%29) was a well-established custom, and I feel like it should be the standard for events, generally. Life tends to interfere; minutes tend to not stretch as long as we’d like them to. Sometimes the cat hides under the bed and refuses to come out, and the time you spend coaxing it into the kitchen so you can leave is the amount of time you’re late to your yoga class. Why not accommodate that? Why not acknowledge that we aren’t robots?

      Re tardiness supposedly being a sign of disrespect – I make an extra effort not to be late when I know that someone’s time is particularly valuable. In many situations, however, it’s not that black-and-white – in those cases, my tardiness warrants my treating the other person to a coffee or muffin. I feel that’s a fair and human arrangement.

      • Sharonica

        That’s a pretty bad excuse to be late to yoga. It totally disrupts the class when people come in late. It’s descent of you to buy coffee and muffins for friends, but you’re not buying them for your whole yoga class, right? Plan an extra 15 minutes for cat related issues so you don’t inconvenience other people. Then when you really do have a serious problem that causes you to be late, as the author saying, people will give you more leeway since you haven’t already used up all your “late credit.”

        Also, I don’t think the writer was making a moral argument but more was saying that a lot of other people will hate you for this behavior, or not recommend you for opportunities. In that sense she is just reporting a fact that you at least want to be aware of.

        As for you, I would have a hard time being your friend, even if I really liked you because I would constantly resent your lateness and have to really spend emotional energy getting past that for the first 5-10 minutes of every time I saw you, and that would get me down after a while. It creates a negative incentive to be around you.

      • aliskye

        I’m not sure how to put this without it sounding rude in a written communication but why do you think you get to decide who’s time is valuable and who’s time is not? Everyone’s time is valuable to them. While I certainly agree that none of us are robots (and personally I allow some slop time (5-10 minutes) for traffic and unavoidable delays, 15, 20, 30 minutes late is excessive and rude.

      • Marissa

        @aliskye, couldn’t have said it better myself.

      • Ariel

        I live in a country where the Academic Quarter applies to everything. And you know what? That sucks.

        It sucks, because there’s a lot of wasted time that way. Even if it’s your close friend, he or she might be super busy and only having a limited time to spend with you on a given day. And you’re cutting into that time. And he or she would just be mad because they could have been productive doing something else for those 15 minutes.

        And it sucks worse when I’ve started being late to things because I got tired of waiting for three quarters of a hour every damn time. But I also know I’d rather be on time rather than late, so I’m now working on not being late.

      • K

        Um, you are exactly the kind of person this article is written for. If you were my friend/employee who arbitrarily decided my time wasn’t “valuable” enough for you to bother planning ahead for, I would consider that the DEFINITION of disrespect.

        Being late irritates the hell out of me. I make it a point never to be late- I’ll get to places 15-20 min early if necessary and read or catch up on emails- just to not be that person. The fact that I make a special point to plan ahead like that means that on the rare occasions I am late for real life reasons, like a giant accident or family emergency, I have such a reputation for punctuality that people worry something happened to me. I even have a proclivity for getting lost going to places (I have a horrible sense of direction) but you know what? I plan ahead for that.

        Also, the academic quarter sucks. Because the kind of people who can’t get their ass to class by 10am aren’t going to get there by 10:15 either. They straggle in around 10:30 because their cat was in a bad mood, or they had to stop to buy gum, or what have you. Meanwhile the rest of us (who also have cats in bad moods and need gum but have been punctual as a matter of courtesy) have waited, now, half an hour just because they can’t bother to show up.

      • Jen Dziura

        K, your comment about moody cats and gum made me laugh. Thanks, everyone, for jumping in here.

        I haven’t personally experienced the academic quarter, but it seems to be that a class that begins at 6-but-actually-6:15 is just a class that starts at 6:15, no? I mean, if the prof started at 6:07, everyone would be surprised. And if you arrive at 6:25 for a reason like “I’m not a robot,” then you’re immensely disrespecting the professor and others. That’s just a 6:15 class, not a license to be late.

    • Miss Devylish

      As most of the commenters can relate to, it’s crappy to be the person waiting all the time for your friend – that would be me – who’s 5-15 min late inconsistently. And like one of the other people, I’m in theater too – so I hate people who walk in 5 min after curtain NOT rushing and think they can get their seat. However, I just did this recently, but in my defense, I was ready and my friend was late from the gym. We ran our asses off to get to the theater and the very nice stage manager found us seats in the back. I thanked her profusely before and after. Still – I’d already made this resolution at the beginning of January due to a couple of choice friends making very direct comments this last year and you’re exactly right – makes me a jackass just because I hate waiting and can’t gauge my travel time correctly when I’ve lived in my city for 16 yrs and I really should understand traffic delays and travel across town is always going to take more than the 10-15 min I think it will.

      I’ve improved this month alone and hope to keep it up. I try to think of being ready to leave at least 30 min before I need to be somewhere now – though occasionally there is the cat puking on the bed, a last minute phone call from Mom, trying not to rush so I don’t forget something necessary as I leave.. but you’re right – we have to allow that cushion of time for those things to happen and STILL not be late. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Kip

      That was a VERY well-written post. Thank you for that great advice. I hate to wait, but I also hate to make others wait, so my policy here in the traffic-laden city was that it’s always OK to be up to 5 minutes late, 10 minutes late is occasionally OK, but if you’re going to be 15 minutes late, then that’s LATE, and that deserves a phone call BEFORE the appointed time, because you KNEW you weren’t going to make it. Your article has helped me a lot, though: I resolve to be a few minutes early from now on. Thanks again.

    • Sk

      Punctuality is the politeness of kings.

    • Sarah

      I used to be late all the time–usually by 5-10 minutes but sometimes (i.e. to that class I hated all the way across campus) more like 30-45 minutes. I did a study abroad, though, that cured me of it almost entirely: everything happened between 5-10 minutes before the listed time. After a week of showing up “only” 5 minutes late to our class dinners and having all the food be gone since everyone started eating 15 minutes ago, and very nearly missing a ferry which left around 4 minutes before scheduled departure time, I was the person who sat in the classroom for 10 minutes before class starts. Now I know that nothing takes me five minutes. Ever. Short things take a half hour and long things take an hour.

      But for the record, for those of you who aren’t chronically late and never have been, it really does not feel (from the inside) like a self-privileging, disrespectful behavior. It feels like OMG-AGAIN-I-cannot-get-my-act-together-what-is-wrong-with-me. (Obviously, your mileage may vary depending on whether the person kerfuffles in apologizing and wrestling with her stuff or merely swans in and says “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”) But your pity and patience are greatly appreciated.

    • c

      this totally applies to people without kids. and in the middle of the day or other time that one is not responsible for little ones. However. those with young children get an extra few minutes, at least in my book. sitters can be late, tantrums may be had, or a spit up can necessitate an unexpected change.

      • Sharonica

        Do you mean your friends or your job? Your friends should cut you some slack, but as for your job it really depends. In a lot of office jobs, people wander at all kinds of times and it’s more about what you get done, but if you and I were working behind the counter at Starbucks, waiting on your ass for 20 minutes and trying to fill all the drink orders myself and getting behind and having the customers get mad at me because I couldn’t do your job in addition to my own .. that would super piss me off.

        It really depends.

    • halo_jones

      Wow. I guess there are a lot of uptight people in the world. Sometimes, I’m late for people. And sometimes, people are late for me – when I have to wait for someone, it doesn’t bother me, really. Unless I’m stressing because I’m worried about getting a good seat for a movie, or something. If your time is so goddamned valuable to you that 10 mins of it is worth more to you than I am, fuck off.

      • Kip

        Pardon me, I think your halo has slipped just a little bit there …. Let me just… there you go. Perfect. (smile)

      • Sharonica

        Do you tell your boss to “fuck off”? It’s career column! I know the conversation has veered to talking about friendships, but surely you can’t mean that this is how you treat your career.

    • Kelley

      My mother was always and still is chronically late. It was very embarrassing as a child to always be late for school, church, doctor’s appointments and even funerals. I could see people clench their jaws when we would show up and disturb everything.

      I’m never late for anything and get to places early. I had a big argument with a girlfriend in college, because she was late meeting me for a job fair by 25 minutes. Life happens, and sometimes people are late but please call if possible.

      There’s a big difference between someone who’s had a minor emergency, and someone who is just too self absorbed to bother with being on time.

    • Too often late

      I just stumbled upon this now after falling down the rabbit hole of your awesome articles. This one really hit a nerve with me because I am the person described in it! On top of that, I’m an only child.. another topic for another day but I feel like raised being the only one goes hand in hand with being oblivious to other people’s time. It’s mainly classes I am late to and I have always thought that my lateness was only affecting me (horrible to realize, hard to admit) because I was the one missing out on the learning. But now… I see the light! Thank you!

    • Jessica

      I am frequently late. Generally between 5-15 minutes late. I often think it isn’t a big deal, but this is definitely a wake-up call. I’ve asked myself WHY I’m always late, and I can’t come up with an answer. It’s definitely not because I think I’m pretty enough to get away with it, or hate waiting and would rather have the other person wait. It’s not even because I don’t feel like going where I’m going (at least not all of the time). I think I just really like my apartment and oftentimes I’ll lose track of time online, where five minutes turns into 15 and bam, I’m ten minutes late. Regardless, I am going to change that because now I am viewing it as essential to my career.