My column was late. Not to you, but to my editor. It is surprising, really, that my column was late, because the time zone difference is in my favor. But this week I would have needed my editor to be in another galaxy.

I will not tell you why I was late because the only thing worse than being late telling why you were late. I am not talking about being late because your family's house burned down. I am talking about being late because of slow traffic, a late babysitter, a presentation that ran too long. Upward mobility requires that people can depend on you to be on time.

If you are a person who is always late, you will get in trouble. People who are always late think they are only sometimes late, so if you think you are sometimes late, you are probably in trouble.

There is no need to give advice on how to be on time, because everyone knows how to be on time. (Here's the proof: If the President of the United States invited you to dinner would there be any risk that you'd be late? No.) But perhaps there is a need to show why *all* deadlines and appointments are as important as dinner with the President.

The basic problem with being late is that you reveal too much about yourself. In the end, being late reveals either disrespect or incompetence, both of which are important things to not have at work, and if you do have them, hide them by being on time, always.

If you are late to a meeting, for example, you are disrespectful to everyone in the room. If your boss is there, forget the promotion. If your direct reports are there, imagine ten years from now when everyone has new jobs at new companies, and your bonus depends on cutting a deal with someone who used to report to you, and that person remembers how disrespectful you were. No bonus.

Sometimes people are on time to the meeting but they don't have the report. Forget the excuses because everyone in the room will see you as incapable. There are shades of incapable. There is incapable of doing the report so you procrastinate. There is perceiving that you are incapable even though you are capable which makes you incapable with low self-esteem. There is overloaded and did not get to the report which really means you cannot set limits at work, which translates to low self-esteem, or worse yet, no knowledge of your own limits.

How can you fix the problem? Being honest with yourself goes a long way in the late arena. Once I was late to dinner and someone at the table said to me, “You must be a time optimist.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But then he explained that most people are late because they are too optimistic about how quickly they can do things — which is a nice way of saying that people are late because they are not honest with themselves about how long things really take. So if you really want to be on time, you will start being a better judge of how much time tasks really take — and you will add some time to each estimate.

I used to teach a college-level business class, and some days I would give a pop quiz during the first five minutes of class. The quiz would be easy but it would count for a significant percentage of a student's overall grade. Some students would approach me after class to tell me that they had an excuse for lateness and that my surly pop quizzes were ruining their chance of getting into law school. I told the students that the quiz was my way of emphasizing that it doesn't matter how much you know about business, if you're late, you will undermine your success.

Luckily, my editor does not quiz me, and luckily, I am not applying to law school.

19 replies
  1. terry
    terry says:

    this is eerie- you wrote this on my 46th birthday but i didnt see it until now. i think that says it all. but i am, finally, at 49 years of age, starting to be a time realist instead of an optimist. if only i’d seen this sooner…
    thanks for this & your advice on how to stop procrastination & why it happens. i have printed them out & hopefully will not put them in a pile, but keep neatly in a file to refer to later, if needed.
    even though i am the antithesis of a brazen careerist, these are extremely helpful life tips that all of us can use.

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      I totally agree with you, I have been late all my life, and it has only gotten worse as I got older, just work very hard, and you will overcome, I know I will, because I will work hard at it. Good Luck.

  2. Erika McGowan
    Erika McGowan says:

    When I read this article, I thought that it had a lot of truth to it. It made me see being late in a way that I had never seen it before. I had never thought of being late as disrespectful, I merely brushed it off to the fact that I had to look faboulous everywhere that I went, and that time was the price that I had to pay in order to acheive that goal. Unfortunately for me, that way of thinking has translated into, my losing of jobs that I really loved and wanted to have a real future with. If you haven’t guessed already, I am a person who is chronically late….no I mean SERIOUSLY CHRONIC….throughtout the years, I have missed important tests, (in both high school and college), meetings at work (or otherwise), and various social gatherings where my attendance was expected ( one time I was supposed to be a guest at my cousin’s wedding, and walked in just in time to see them walking down the aisle AFTER saying their vows and kissing!). And with all this being said….I’m only 23…I’ve got a long road to go, before I actually get into my career (with the help of God!)Long story short…I need help, I don’t know what to do….am I cursed with the inability to make anywhere on time?

  3. Erika McGowan
    Erika McGowan says:

    I found this link by googling my own name, and followed it because someone by the name of Erika McGowan already read it!
    I have a problem with being late despite it being my biggest pet peeve. I was impressed with your article, and I’m going to print it out and hang it in my dorm room. Thanks for writing it.

  4. ashamed
    ashamed says:

    oh my god, im so pissed. my boss told my co worker that if im late again then my boss needs to be notified. i guess the worst of it is knowing that my boss is involving other coworkers, and none the less i was informed by the co worker who was not about to rat me out. its horrible.. couldn’t stop thinking about it.. had to put that traumatic event out there for everyone to see, thanks for reading. think encouraging thoughts for me. thanks


  5. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    I just found your blog yesterday and have been reading it for hours, my partner is tired of me looking up and saying ‘but can I just read this piece to you’ NO YOU CANNOT YOU READ TOO FAST. Darn.

    I have never read so many amazing, insightful, fabulous, posts in one place. You say stuff that has been in my head but didn’t even know how to articulate. Your latest post about artists! So great, your career advice, blogging. I have never signed up to follow anyone on twitter in my life. I am so looking forward to receiving your posts in my inbox!
    Hope you are feeling better!

  6. Serenity
    Serenity says:

    The best part of this blog I think is the statement “Time Optimist.” I have been chronically late for years. It is true, I can show up on time to things I enjoy or is of interest to me. Thanks for the mirror!

  7. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Thank you for this article. As much as I didn’t enjoy hearing the truth, but I do realize it is the truth. I am always late. I have managed to be successful with an MBA and a good job, but lateness has always been a HUGE problem. Who know, perhaps I would be even more successful if I were on time. I am late to things I enjoy doing and late to things I hate doing. It is the most stressful for me, who gets frustrated and annoyed with myself for being late. I really have to make a conscious effort to give myself plenty of time to get somewhere. Could it ever be considered a disorder? Or is that just another excuse?!

  8. Maria de Jesus
    Maria de Jesus says:

    I really don’t believe that when I am late, it is that I am being disrespectful to the other people. I don’t do it on purpose at all! I think the reason is the latter, “a time optimist”. I do think I can do more the earlier I wake up, I do think I can make it right on time to work by getting in short cuts and cutting it close, I truly think that I can do it all AND a lot of times I DO! I have that type of personality that likes or is used to living on the edge, otherwise I feel dead and boring. Moreover, I might not be on time to work (and it doesn’t mean I am 30 minutes late either; i’m talking about 5-15 minutes late, tops!), but I am very reliable when they call me at spur of the moments, and I make high sales because I have this “edgy” personality, and I am a very quick learner at anything that is presented to me.
    So to make a judgement on someone and say THEY ARE DISRESPECTING PEOPLE BY BEING LATE I think is too general.

  9. Rob
    Rob says:

    Well i wish i could agree. I have to say I want more than anything to be on time. My boss decided to take a day and show me how to be on time because I am always late and she is ALWAYS on time. So 8 am I was waiting in her office (i planned on showing up at 7:30 so I ended up getting there my normal 7-10 minutes late but still really early for her) She arrived at exactly 8:07 am profusely apologizing explaining she doesn’t know what happened and that it was like she “hit EVERY red light on the way in.” I didn’t even flinch for this was routine for me. When she went to get everything from her computer she had a problem where she got what we in the office refer to a the “blue screen of death” so her computer would not start causing her to get on the phone with the help desk and further causing our departure from the office to run 30 minutes behind. Luckily, as she said, she ALWAYS “plans for disaster” which is why it was so good she allowed an hour for the commute instead of the 20 minutes it should have taken.

    So now we had 30 minutes to go the 20 minutes we needed to travel and per usual hit every red light and were stuck behind a bus. I could see her start to panic the way I used to before I just gave into the cause.

    We arrive at the building at exactly 9:30 the time of the scheduled appointment. She smirked and laughed and said “Ha see that! that’s how you get somewhere on time!” I turned and said. “I didnt realize the meeting was in the parking garage inside your car.” (obviously I had been on time many more times than I had realized before if this were the case but the gathering of your belongings in the car, the fumbling of your keys to lock the doors, the run from the garage to the building, the neverending hitting of the elevator button, the stopping on every floor before your own, the constant debate of whether its better to stop in the restroom on the way or shit your pants in the meeting, the final pocket guess to find your access card to open your door, would an EYE SCAN BE TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR PEOPLE??? always seems to take about 7- 10 minutes.)

    With that the look of defeat mixed with anger counter balanced the smugness of mine as she ran into the back seat to gather what she needed. Of course being new to being late the fumble was twice as bad. The dropping of papers was borderline “Three’s Company-esque.” Then I heard what I had been waiting for. The beep of the locked doors. So I launched a very simple verbal gernade. “Do you have everything?” , “Yes” So I reached back in the car and grabbed her business card holder and didn’t say a word.

    We ran to the elevator. (I give her no more credit for doing it heels than I do myself for doing it in a suit with a tie choking me so I can’t breathe) then we hit the parking garage elevator (again and again) then finding the elvator brought us only to the lobby where we had to then sign in with the concierge. This was beginning to be the best day ever! We finally arrived in the office at 9:47!

    I am sure you can imagine what happened next. THE UNTHINKABLE! The one thing she always criticized me for! EXCUSES, you name it. Traffic, the confusing building, the bus, what a crazy day, she is never late. “well you are here now, that’s what matters” he replied cheerfully. “Here is my business card, do you have one?”

    I didn’t want to rub it in, so I just said, “Here are our cards” and handed them over but she knew she had forgotten them but we never spoke of it. The meeting went well and we left at 10:15 which would give us plenty of time to get to our 11:30 appointment which was just down the street. In the downtime we would prospect for new business she said and visit with some current clients that had businesses in the area.

    Always being the overachiever with 20 minutes to spare she walked into a Current Client to say hello and wouldn’t you know, they were having account issues. Trying everything including “I will have to come back I have another engagement right now” she frantically rushed to get out of there. The client responded with. “Well obviously if I were an important client this would not have happened in the first place.” So she stayed and worked out the problem making us 7 minutes late for the scheduled appointment.

    When we walked in and announced to the secretary who we were there to see and who we were, she stepped away and came back with a message. “Mr. (insert name here) will not be seeing you today, he runs a very tight schedule and you are late.”

    “If you could just tell him that we are sorry and that our previous appointment got out late I’m sure he will understand.”

    She returned with the following message “He said, well head to your next meeting and let them know the good news that you are really early because your previous appointment cancelled because you were late.”

    She could not believe how rude he had been it seemed as though she was in shock. Which seemed strange to me coming from the woman who would watch a clock and close a door at 8 am sharp for a meeting placing a sign that read “Hi you are late, please do not disturb this meeting.” ( A sign that she would waste more time gathering the materials to make than it would to let someone walk in and sit down.) Even stranger coming from a woman who would schedule a weekly meeting from 8-9 am and would often run it till 9:15 or 9:30 and not see that as being late but seeing an 8:01 or 8:02 arrival missing nothing other than the “how was everyone’s weekend chat” as being late.

    As you can imagine this set a mood for the rest of the day, the wrong order coming at lunch where she could not just eat the food that was delivered to save time due to a food allergy, (what are the chances) to the cliche fender bender which I was there to witness but everyone would just think it was an excuse.

    We made one appointment on time that day. I didn’t say a word. I just hoped that she understood. (it turned out she still doesn’t and also refuses to spend time in the field with me, she thinks I’m cursed.)

    But there are days that work well and the universe is flowing with me and there are days that are filled with red lights and buses. You can argue all you want that if the president invited me to dinner that I would be ontime. But I simply can not guarantee it. I would simply hope that he would understand that my intention was to be on time and that it was not out of disrespect for him or her. That many of the greats were usually late or procrastinators in their day, Thomas Edison being among them.

    It is not a selfish thing either as many have tried to complain. There have been plenty of things I have been dying to do myself that I have missed out of to the punishment of no one but me. I had tickets to the Academy Awards two years in a row. The first year my flight got cancelled and the new flight did not arrive in time to get me to my arrival and I was not allowed in by 15 minutes. (this was flight booked by the company who was able to get me the tickets, not myself)

    The following year I booked my flight myself. 2 days in advance. I was in my hotel taking a shower 4 hours in advance of the arrival time across the street when the fire alarm in the hotel went off. We had to evacuate and were not let back into the hotel until after the awards had begun. It was a security measure for the awards.

    The stories are endless and some I am totally at fault for and some I am not. I’ve learned to take the good and take the bad, they are the facts of life.

    For those of you who are still arguing this
    Argue it with the people mentioned in this blog:

  10. CRM
    CRM says:

    Time management is very important and to help in this area I have always find that some good business management software that incorporates all your contacts and a linked diary with reminders and tasks is a great help. I can’t remember everything myself and be as efficient as possible without a good system is near to impossible.

  11. Casey
    Casey says:

    I was late this morning by 1 hour. I was late 3 weeks ago by 2 minutes. Same difference. I didn’t miss anything important, and if there were an event of great importance I would not have been. It is a sign of disrespect. I totally agree.

    Words of Wisdom: don’t add insult to injury by smelling like ass and not showering. If you’re late, you’re late. Get breakfast and enjoy the relaxing commute.

  12. Amy
    Amy says:

    When I was younger and late, I felt the same as a few of you here do– it’s just a few minutes late(in some cases though MUCH worse), but now at 42, it is one of the worst things about myself that I simply can’t stand and feel like I have tried every trick(but am not giving up). I have lost jobs that maybe wouldn’t have lead to anything, but at least I would have left on my own instead of being told to leave. I am definitely a “Time Optimist” rarely give myself enough time and try to cram way too much in, but also realize there are times that I just dawdle. Am I lazy? Am I unorganized? Am I self-absorbed? I must be if I have this problem though it’s not one particular reason.

    After really giving this some thought this morning as I was sitting in traffic, late of course, calling this a “bad habit” is letting myself off too easy and would venture to say this is bordering on an addiction. A late addiction. Afterall a bad habit is cracking your knuckles or not using your turn signals or swearing too much. This IS a serious character flaw. In fact as I pulled this problem apart, I started to recognize(a good first step some would say)some disturbing similarities to other addictions like gambling or alcohol.

    1. Always apologizing/making excuses – I am always apologizing for being late to someone. When you say “I’m sorry”, recipients expect you to correct your behavior. If you continue, the apology is meaningless. Abusers are always apologizing, but continue the abuse.
    2. Inherited/learned bad behavior- My mom was always late and when I was late for school, she would enable me by writing a note so I did not get in trouble. Think about alcoholics and/or smokers, right? She has gotten a little better and I can no longer blame my mommy. I am an adult and do not want my children to suffer with this.
    3. Lost money/wages- I’ve lost many jobs for being late(yet for the majority of time, I’m still late). Any difference than gambling it away or spending it on drugs/alcohol?

    I’m teetering now at my current job. I set 3 alarms this morning for 5:30AM and yet arrived for work at 9:40AM(10 minutes late). I’ve tried hypnosis, meditation, notes, etc. I appreciate reading this article and all of your responses. I am bound and determined to overcome this addiction.

  13. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Today I was late for work and I felt horrible, because my boss found out. I’ve just graduated recently so I’m quite inexperienced. But I was usually late for a lot of appointments and deadline before. It’s fantastic that you help me realize that I AM a time optimist. I would practice to be a time realist!. This article is very helpful, and I swear to myself that this morning is the last time I’ll be late for anything. I deeply thankful for your article.

  14. Alan
    Alan says:

    Being early is worse than being late. If you come in to meet someone early, he might have planned to prepare for the meeting in the 15 or 30 minutes before the scheduled time, and you’ve just stolen away his prep time, which means that he will be awkward and unhappy..

    Or if you’re coming to visit me at my home and you arrive 30 minutes early, I might be in the bathtub or just getting out of the bathtub, and you’re going to get me stark raving nude, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?

  15. Dwaddler
    Dwaddler says:

    I just lost a job paying 62k for being late. I thought I could charm and excuse my way through. My boys was not playing and now I have to start from square one.

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