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

In my case, I was late a lot because I resented having to do all the things I was late for. Even today, I’ve been known to wake up all pissed off, thinking “WHY DO THEY MAKE ME LEAVE MY HOUSE?”

Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness that the reason we have such a hard time being happy is that we are really bad at anticipating what our future selves will enjoy. This is why we own so much stupid shit. Furthermore, research into the brain also casts light on why we agree to do things we don’t really want to do when the time comes.

As it turns out, when we think about doing something in the future — say, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in five years — we think in very general terms: Adventure! Glory! Nature! When we think about doing the same thing in the near future, we think about specifics: Hard work! Bugs! No toilets! Thus, if you want to get people to agree to be bridesmaids in your destination wedding in Latvia, ask two years in advance — people will agree to almost anything that far out. You’ll get more assent to Latvia in 2013 than to dinner tomorrow — when it comes down to Friday night, people can anticipate whether they’re not going to want to go out. What a shlep! But Latvia in the winter? Fun! Adventure! Intrigue!

How to use this to your advantage: every time you consider adding something to your calendar, imagine that you have to do it tomorrow. Imagine the preparation you will have to do, and how much time it will take you to dress up or otherwise look appropriate. Imagine the transportation involved and how long before the event you will need to leave. Imagine waking up tomorrow and actually doing all of those things. Now, do you still want to put that on your calendar? (This, my friends, is why your social circle is not really going to visit you in Weehawken, even though they say they will).

The other big reason many people are habitually late is that they hate waiting, so they have decided that other people should wait instead. Don’t fool yourself: the only way to never have to wait is to make other people wait for you, also known as being an asshole.

In order to no longer be late for things, thus accruing the ire of others, you will have to make peace with waiting. Accept that committing to do something involves a time sandwich (the event is the filling; the commuting and waiting are the bread).

Five years ago, I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where it takes an hour to get anywhere (“only 18 minutes on the train to Union Square!” doesn’t help much when the trains come anywhere between 7 and 29 minutes apart, depending on whether it’s Tuesday or they have PMS). [Editor's note: Moving away from the L train was one of the best life decisions I've ever made.] As a side effect of that unfortunate experience, I now sort of reflexively assume that it’ll take me an hour to get anywhere. (Also: an hour each way is a lot of time, so keeping that in mind makes it easier to decline dubious engagements — see also How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently).

When you spend an outer-borough amount of time on the train, you of course find ways to redeem your train time. You can also find ways to redeem other wait times. For instance, when you buy a new album for your iPod, don’t listen to it: wait until you’ve got a serious wait on your hands. More productively, though, I postpone a lot of short to-do list items specifically for those five-minute blocks. If you’ve got a four-hour block in your day, don’t fritter it away on non-urgent five-minute tasks; save those tasks for your wait times. You can absolutely return phone calls outside of restaurants, which also gives you a fine excuse to keep calls succinct.

In sum, there are plenty of people out there blithely flitting through life, arriving places when they feel like it, and nothing bad seems to happen. Except that people hate you and are too polite to say so, or, at very least, they are keeping your friendship wholly in the hanging-out zone and specifically not recommending you for jobs, gigs, and all kinds of opportunities where they don’t want to get burned when you turn out to be irresponsible.

For years, I had a very talented friend in my own industry — a woman who could (patiently and with panache!) teach writing, logic, and research skills to a monkey. She was also routinely three or more hours late to everything, including a full-time job that no one could figure out why she still had. When a job came up that I couldn’t do, I would think of her literally at least twice a month — “Oh, I’ll bet so-and-so would write some amazing worksheets about verbs!” — and then I would say to myself, Oh, that’s a shame. Because I don’t work with any clients who want their work done “sometime.” And then we would hang out and have a lovely time, and I just wouldn’t mention any of the gigs she would’ve been (otherwise) perfect for and that I didn’t send to her.

That is — if everything seems fine, it’s very likely that it could’ve been a lot better than fine. Erring on the side of competence will really never do you wrong.

Share This Post:
    • 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.