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Always Late? Stop Living in Time Denial

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Click for photo The predominant cause of chronic lateness is a basic inability to determine – or admit – how long something takes to complete.  Of course this probably isn’t a scientific fact (yet).  So for now, just take my word for it.

Similar to how some people can’t navigate their way out of their own driveway (myself included), some of us just weren’t born with an ability to gauge elapsed or remaining time.  We consistently think we have more time than we actually do, downplaying the reality of the situation: that whatever time we have remaining, even though we think it’s enough, isn’t even close.

We forget about the little things, we assume the best of every situation, and we get caught up in a "right here, right now" mentality instead of making a clean break from the present and moving onto what’s next.  

It’s called time denial.  And you’re living in it.

Time denial isn’t just specific to chronic latecomers, most everyone falls prey to this mentality at one point or another.  Yup, even you my friend.  So stop judging the dude in the next cubicle.

You know the drill… You’re right in the middle of something that has your complete attention, all the while your next commitment is creeping up on you.  You glance at the clock, trying to squeeze in another few minutes to finish that email – or frag that alien with your rocket launcher – thinking that no matter what, you have time because it "only takes" 15 minutes to get to the office. 

By the time you pull away from your current activity, grab your coat, and run to your car, you’re already down to 14 minutes… and you need to get gas.  And of course, traffic has started building up.  Before you know it, you’re not 5 minutes late, you’re 25 minutes late!

Avoidable?  Certainly.  Acceptable?  Most certainly not.  Maybe you can get away with it the first time… if you’re a nice person.  But great things weren’t achieved showing up 25 minutes late.  Trust isn’t built by letting people down, making them wait for you and your bad habits.  Real artists of life don’t show up late all the time.

Real artists of life have integrity.

Look, time management is only as good as your relationships.  If you’re a master at managing your task list but people don’t want to work with you, or don’t trust you to show up when they expect you to, it doesn’t matter how many to-dos you’re checking off each day.  Commitments are the most important thing in business, and are pretty high on the list of "personal life" as well. 

If you find yourself showing up late all the time, you simply need to get a fix on it.

Here are some things you can start to do immediately to keep yourself from ever being late again.

Analyze your behavior

Next time you’re late, figure out exactly why before it leaves your short-term memory.  For me, it’s almost always the time it takes to park in a parking garage and take the elevator.  For whatever reason, each time I’m 5-10 minutes late I can always work backwards from the start time to see that I didn’t budget that last 5% of the travel time.  For you, it could be the time it takes to do your hair or drop your kid off at school.  Whatever it is, you’re better off knowing than guessing.  Learn from your mistakes!

Work backward from the commitment

If you need to get to work by 9am but have dry-cleaning to pick-up and a donut to grab on the way in, start with the end in mind and work backward.  In order to get to work by 9am, you’ll need to be on the road by 8:40.  In order to be on the freeway by 8:40, you need to leave the donut shop by 8:35.  And in order to do that, you’ll have to get there by 8:30… which means leaving your house at 8:20.  All of a sudden, getting to work on time isn’t so difficult.  My wife is a master at this when we have a flight to catch!

Assume the worst

In order to get somewhere on time, you can’t assume that the roads are just going to clear for you.  Similarly, if you need to get a report finished, build in the time it takes to get your errands finished – don’t underestimate the time because you’re assuming rosy circumstances.  Of course, nothing is ever perfect – there’s always going to be an accident on the bridge, or a longer than expected line at the coffee shop.  If you assume the worst and build that into your plan, you won’t have to worry about it becoming reality.  If and when it does, you can just shrug it off.  And if things are perfect, you may even be early!

Prep things in advance

One trick I use all the time is to assume my future self is lazy.  Because based on past experience, I know he is.  Once you’ve accepted the fact that the "you" right now is 10x more motivated to make your life easier than the "you" tomorrow, you start to trick that bum into doing things your way.  You do things like put toothpaste on your toothbrush two hours before you brush your teeth so you have no excuses, you pick out your clothes for the next day and even iron them, you pull the trash out of the can and stick it by the door ready to go.  This of course applies to being late in a fundamental way: if you can anticipate the thing(s) that have the highest chance of making you late tomorrow and can shave minutes off of your routine, you can make things easier for the future you.

Putting it into practice

Tomorrow is the first day I’m dropping my daughter off at school.  We have a baby on the way in a couple weeks and the responsibility of drop-off is shifting to me for a while.  With my 35+ minute commute in the morning, I’m going to have to get serious about getting out of the house on time.  There are simply more things that can make me late now.

Here’s how I’m implementing these ideas right now for tomorrow morning:

  • When I’ve been late in the past, I’ve underestimated traffic and how long it takes me to get my morning espresso.  Now I’m going to assume the worst.
  • I have a dentist appointment in the morning, and I know that getting there involves local street traffic that’s worse than my normal commute to work.  So I worked backwards from the start time to give myself enough time to get there on time.  
  • I know I want to publish this in the morning, so I’m going to get it ready for a single "Publish" click so I don’t waste time word-smithing it more in the morning.
  • I need to get gas!  So I actually did it tonight instead of watching TV since there’s no way I’d make it on time if I had to make another stop on the way.
  • I know I’ll need my laptop for my first meeting, so I’ll charge it right now.
  • I’ll pack my gym and laptop bag tonight before I go to bed and leave them by the door with my coat & keys.

Like so many "secrets" in life, none of this should be a surprise to anyone.  The ideas aren’t what’s important here though, it’s the execution of those ideas – the formation of positive habits that improve your life step-by-step, little by little.  You aren’t going to get a wish granted by a genie anytime soon (and if you were, "never being late" shouldn’t be what you pick) so the next best thing is to be the change you want to see in yourself.

Written by Mike Torres

March 17th, 2010 at 7:51 am

Posted in Productivity

Tagged with , ,

  • katiemorton

    I loved this article! I mentioned it in today's blog post, because it's so perfect for what I was already writing about today on

    • Thanks Katie! It was a fun one to write – liked your post too – all very true!

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  • James

    Great article Mike. I'm going to start implementing those ideas straight away! Cheers mate.

  • James

    Great article Mike. I'm going to start implementing those ideas straight away! Cheers mate.

  • Oh well I am one of those as well…I cannot tell how soon I can do things or how long it would take to complete…

  • manymanyvisitors

    Ash, very much enjoyed your take on this common struggle and I read this post at just the right time to make some shifts in my own flow. Looking forward to reading more.cursus timemanagement

  • globalseopoint

    nice post.thanks for sharing.

  • dylen

    Thanks very much for all the links and resources. I’ve just been “thrust” into being a PM and I have no tools whatever. This is really helpful! I still have a few days to decide but reading this article made me realize I might fail my team.which will support me to do well.
    cursus timemanagement

  • cestvrai

    For some “artists of life” it’s called ADHD, and we’re living in it.

    • Nikola Zdraveski

      In Sweden ADHD means “Alexander Dahl Har Damp” -Alexander Dahl is a stupid friend of mine and Har damp means exactly: is angry