Always Late!

Nine-year old James is never ready for school on time. It doesn’t matter how much his parents nag or threaten, he is always late. Fifteen-year old Holly has too many detention slips for being late to class or to sports practice. Thirty-year old Sam has a reputation for being late to work, keeping his dates waiting, and turning up to family dinners after everyone has started eating. Why is it that that these three people are such poor timekeepers?

I am of the strong belief that the vast majority of human beings want to stay onside with the important people in their lives. James ends up in tears when his parents yell at him in desperation; Holly’s grades are slipping because she is becoming disheartened abut the trouble she gets into; and Sam is tired of being told off by his boss, his girlfriends and his family. These people want to please their significant others, and end up blaming themselves harshly for being disorganised, or blaming others for their impossible expectations of timeliness.
Rather than attributing chronic tardiness to negative personality traits like laziness, arrogance or insensitivity to others’ feelings, my preference is to begin by exploring two other causal factors – understanding time, and distractibility. If I can exclude these information processing difficulties, then I might begin to think about difficult personality traits.

First, there is no doubt that some people’s brains struggle with the concept of time. Grasping the idea of thirty minutes isn’t easy for everyone. Most of us can imagine how long thirty minutes takes, and, more importantly, what can be accomplished in that time. However, for a particular group of people, it isn’t that easy. Not being able to gauge how long it takes to do all of the tasks necessary to get ready for school or work, or getting to a family dinner, means that there is always the risk of running late. The intention to be on time gets overwhelmed by misjudging how long it takes to do things, or not making allowances for unexpected events like heavy traffic or no clean socks. If I ask someone like this to tell me how long it takes to, say, make your bed or get dressed, or get ready for work, or get to hockey practice, they inevitably judge the time required to be about half the actual time. If I ask what other things need to be taken into consideration when timing an activity (like accommodating an unexpected telephone call when you’re hurrying, or remembering that you’ve left your homework at home when you’re already on the way to school), they generally haven’t thought about it. So, if the unexpected happens, they find it difficult to put that activity (like talking on the phone or going back to fetch the homework) to one side in order to achieve the primary goal – being on time. They become distracted by the unexpected task and spend time on that rather than having a strategy that will allow them to come back to that later and stay on track for the immediate goal of being punctual.

Second, some people start out with a clear idea of what needs to be done in order to be on time, but lose concentration on the tasks at hand and become distracted by other things like the TV or an intriguing thought or a cherished pet. That is not to say that goals, like being on time for school, getting somewhere at the appointed time, or finishing a chore, become less important. They simply disappear from view for a while. Unfortunately, the people involved in those goals (parents or an employer or the family waiting for dinner) take the tardiness as a sign that they aren’t important to the latecomer. This just isn’t the case – it is the activity (getting ready or travelling) that loses out to the distractor – the people always matter. Unfortunately, it’s the people who are inconvenienced by the lateness, and the people take the lateness personally, assuming that the latecomer “doesn’t care enough about me” to be on time.

People who struggle with the concept of time (and consequently struggle with time management) and people who are easily distracted from what they are doing (and consequently lose sight of the task at hand) need to recognise these information processing problems, and develop explicit organisational strategies to compensate for them. Preparation is a key here – planning for the next day’s school or work by having clothes and other necessities prepared the night before, or having a strategy for coping with the unexpected such as telling the unexpected caller you’ll get back to them later. You can become more on-time by doing trial runs (timing activities so that you know how long it actually takes to do something); having visual and auditory reminders of appointments and tasks to be done like leaving “notes to self” on the fridge or the bathroom mirror; using the appointment programme on your computer or cellphone; leaving more than enough time between tasks or appointments; and rewarding yourself when you get it right!


Comments are closed.