I used to be a chronic Late Person. In my time-warped brain, lateness seemed like an immutable trait — a facet of my identity that I was destined to drag around for life. A close friend once told me that it was my only major personality flaw, which was sort of a compliment (I think?) but also pathetic. Why couldn’t I figure out how to get myself where I was supposed to be at the appointed time instead of arriving ten (or 30) minutes late, panting, stressed, and sorry, so sorry?
Meanwhile, my status as a Late Person was at odds with the person I wanted to be — thoughtful, organized, dependable. My husband, an inveterate Early Person, has told me repeatedly that being late conveys disrespect for other people’s time — if not their whole existence. “It’s not just rude and selfish. It shows me that you don’t consider me important,” he once fumed after sitting in the car outside our apartment for 20 minutes after I said I would “be right there.”
In addition to hurting my credibility and relationships, being late was costly. I don’t even want to think about the amount of money I’ve spent on Ubers and Lyfts because I ran out of time to walk or take the train. In 2015, I missed a $500 flight to Chicago. A few years later, I threw out half the contents of my luggage when I arrived at the airport too late to check a bag. I’ve been turned away from haircuts and workout classes, despite paying in full, when I showed up past the grace period. I was once late for a job interview — for a position I really wanted and, obviously, did not get. I’ve picked up the tab for countless friends’ drinks and dinners to compensate for the fact that I was late to meet them.
Naturally, I got tired of this. I realized I had certain friends I’d never seen arriving anywhere, because they always preceded me. I would hustle in to find them sitting peacefully — in control of their time and with nary a bead of sweat on their brow. So I started asking them how they did it and trying to copy what they said.
These days, I’m far from perfect, but I’m a lot better. In the past year, a number of my loved ones — including my husband, the ultimate judge and witness of my timeliness — have remarked on my progress. I’m delighted with this on-time version of myself, but it’s not my natural state. So I spoke with several experts about what’s working, what to keep in mind, and how I can stick to it.
Being on time is a skill that takes practice.
Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist and professor who studies self-regulation and time management, tells me that promptness is a behavior that can be learned. Conversely, so is lateness: “At some point, being late was modeled to you as acceptable behavior,” she explains. “And if it’s what you know, you’re more likely to repeat it.”
This realization shattered my excuse that I was beyond hope and doomed to carry out the Late Person habits I was raised with (I was always the last kid left at school pickup). As it turns out, I am not a helpless victim of the relentless clock. My time is mine to plan — for better or worse.
That said, changing your habits requires effort. “Being at a certain place at a certain time takes a set of skills,” says Laura Vanderkam, a speaker and author of five books on time management including Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. “But you do have to prioritize learning them.”
Changing my mindset toward punctuality might sound overly simple, but when I recognized that being on time was just like any other proficiency I’ve acquired in my adult life (cooking, Google Docs, taking care of a baby), I felt more confident in my ability to work at it. I became more forgiving of myself when I messed up. What once felt like an innate quality suddenly became attainable if I put my mind to it.
Visualize your future self.
Many late people are more “present oriented,” says Sirois, which means that they tend to get deeply absorbed in whatever they’re doing. This can be a positive thing. My ability to focus and block out distractions comes in handy. But it means that I lose track of time, and the next thing I know, I’ve been drafting an important email for 30 minutes instead of attending an equally important meeting.
It’s tough to change this about yourself, and I’m not totally sure I want to. But it is possible for present-oriented people to become more connected to their future selves, says Sirois. “One reason people are late is that the future seems too abstract. If that’s the case, spend more time visualizing your future self and what you want her life to look like,” she explains. “What happens when you’re on time? What are the benefits? Do you gain a reputation as someone who’s reliable? Do you get to spend more time with the people you care about? Do you worry less about disappointing people?” Once you have a stronger idea and attachment to this version of yourself, Sirois adds, you’ll be more motivated to take the steps to become that person.
Understand where your lateness comes from.
When I am late, it’s for the dumb and obvious reason that I have failed to account for how much time I need to do things. But there might be deeper issues at play. “Some people might not be fully committed to a plan, so lateness is their way of manifesting that,” says Sirois. “Or they might feel annoyed and rushed, so being late is a subconscious way to rebel and assert their freedom.” Unfortunately, I can relate to both scenarios.
On a more depressing note, lateness can be a sign of low self-regard. “If you don’t have respect for your own time, it’s going to be easier to disrespect other people’s time and be late,” says Sirois. “Whereas if you view your own time as valuable, you’re probably going to extend others the same courtesy.” A friend of mine — a former Late Person — once arrived late to therapy and her therapist asked why she didn’t love herself enough to arrive places on time. She is now consistently prompt.
My main problem, though, is that I want to do a lot. And being on time means that you often have to do less, says Vanderkam. “If you pare down your commitments, that’s fewer things that are going to pile up with inevitable delays,” she says.
I hate that this is true. I want to unload the dishwasher, respond to one more email, and finish an article before my baby has to go to a doctor’s appointment, but I can’t. (I hate how much this bothers me.) But if I want to be the future me who’s on time, I have to get over it.
Set alarms, make schedules, and do whatever you can to structure your time.
When I started tackling my lateness problem in earnest, I tried setting alarms for when I needed to leave for things. This proved helpful when I got so absorbed in a “task” (texting with a friend) that I didn’t realize I was going to be late for a 2 p.m. Zoom call. It’s great when you’re talking to someone and don’t want to awkwardly interrupt them to check the time — the alarm does it for you! Vanderkam confirms that this is a smart tactic. She recommends it if you have trouble putting yourself to bed at a reasonable hour. (How did she know?)
Another of Vanderkam’s nuggets that I’ve adopted is to get very granular with planning out my day. Yawn, I know, but allow me to explain. When I became a parent, I surprised everyone (particularly myself) by becoming more on time to things. The reason is straightforward: We have to follow a consistent schedule or the baby will become a psychopath and our lives will explode.
As a result, I will frequently sit down with a notecard and write out, hour by hour, what we need to do so that my husband and I can wrap our heads around it. Vanderkam says this approach helps if you have trouble realizing how many steps it takes you to do things. “Maybe getting to work took you 20 minutes that one time when there was no traffic and the weather was perfect,” she says. “But most other days, it takes you five minutes to get out the door, because you need to figure out what outerwear to put on, then the commute itself is 25 minutes, because it’s raining and everyone’s going more slowly.”
If this is a major issue for you, tracking your time — literally logging the minutes you spend doing things (on an app or in a notebook) — can be a useful exercise, Vanderkam adds. (I tried this for one humiliating week and learned, among other things, that it does in fact take me longer than 15 minutes to take a shower and get dressed.)
Be prepared to be early.
My cousin once told me that the trick to being on time is to try to be early, which I could not conceptualize. Being early seemed like the ultimate waste of time. Why would you choose to just sit there like an idiot with nothing to do? It still makes me a little antsy to think about it. Thankfully, we have weapons to combat this type of social anxiety: phones.
Sirois recommends having a plan for when you are early — like reading a book or article or even bringing a notepad. “I carry a journal wherever I go, and if I have a few minutes, I take it out and jot down notes and thoughts on things I’m working on,” she says. That way, being early feels like gaining bonus time instead of losing it.
When you are running late, take accountability for it.
During one of the many blowout fights my husband and I have had about my lateness, he implored me to simply own up to it. “As soon as you know you’re running late, figure out what time you will actually be there, then just tell me,” he said. “I promise that I will be much less mad.”
This sucked at first, because it forced me to abandon my wishful thinking. I was not going to walk 20 minutes faster than Google maps predicted. I was going to show up for a 7 p.m. dinner reservation at 7:25, and that was embarrassing.
But then, when I accurately communicated my lateness, two things happened: The people waiting for me were less annoyed, because they weren’t stranded in limbo and could use the extra time to do something else, and I realized how long it actually took me to do stuff. Which is, of course, always longer than I think.
The Cut’s financial advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to email@example.com.