The unbearable heaviness of being late

If it’s one thing I am terrible at, it’s being on time.

late_clockNow don’t get me wrong, I’m not the worst. I can compare myself to friends and acquaintances who are much worse than I am at showing up when they’re supposed to, but the whole point is to compare myself to the best, not the worst.

In the workplace, showing up on time can make a huge difference to how you’re perceived. Every single time I’m late to a morning meeting, a part of me dies inside. I’ve often been on the receiving end, waiting for ages for a person to show up and it sucks. Whether or not it was intentional, being late indicates a lack of respect for the other person’s time. It’s plain rude and I know I’m guilty of it.

Tim Urban puts it really well. There are two types of lateness

  1. Okay lateness. This is when the late person being late does not negatively impact anyone else—like being late to a group hangout or a party. Things can start on time and proceed as normal with or without the late person being there yet.
  2. Not okay lateness. This is when the late person being late does negatively impact others—like being late to a two-person dinner or meeting or anything else that simply can’t start until the late party arrives.

I fall firmly in the first camp—I’m usually late to meetings that don’t require my presence to start. I highly doubt it negatively impacts anyone else, but it definitely does negatively impact me and how I’m perceived. I’m careful to avoid the second type of lateness, usually because the guilt itself would drive me nuts. The reasons why I’m late usually boil down to

  1. Denial. “I still have plenty of time left!”
  2. Instant Gratification. “Let me just catch up on all the Instagram posts I missed when I was sleeping”
  3. Resignation. “I’m going to be late anyway, what’s a few more minutes?”

The good thing is though, I recognize the error of my ways and I know that I have to do better. The underlying psychology of being late is pretty interesting too.

That’s a little-known concept called the planning fallacy, which is a strong tendency to chronically underestimate task completion. The planning fallacy is one of the most difficult behavioral patterns to change, experts say.

To put it simply, people who are late underestimate how long a task will take. Now as a product manager, a huge part of my job is to coordinate releases and plan product cycles. This means estimating how long tasks will take and sticking to a predetermined release date. A delay could be really costly not just in terms of money, but in terms of precious development time. Underestimating time in this context is fatal, and the weird thing is, I’m usually on-point with these type of estimates. It seems my problem with estimating how long things will take is limited to my personal life.

I’ve spent some time thinking and reading about it—I’ve come up with a few ways to combat perennial lateness

  1. Track how long usual activities like bathing, working out and driving to work take on average. Measure everyday until you’ve come up with a realistic number.
  2. Use these values while planning for your day. Overestimate and plan for trouble in each case.
  3. Set out everything you need for the morning (clothes, accessories) the night before.
  4. Don’t hit snooze on the alarm when you wake up in the morning.

I’m experimenting with a combination of these, I plan to update this blog once I do. Let me know if you have any suggestions that have worked for you.

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