June 23, 2024

The other day, I was waiting on a train platform, seething with irritation. The service was delayed, which meant I was going to be late meeting a friend at the theatre. It did not help that the venue was on the other side of London. It was one I had never visited before, so I had no idea how long it would take to walk from the station.

“Running just a wee bit late,” I text-fibbed, feeling a rush of remorse. I am not usually spectacularly late, unless I am extremely stressed, and then things turn ugly. I recall the time I had to do an interview with a French actor; unusually, our rendezvous was in the early evening at a cafe. I was already behind schedule and then got hopelessly lost. When I finally turned up, she was blotto, an empty bottle of red in front of her, and furious. More recently, it was the final day of my university degree show and we had to take down our frames by 4pm sharp when the building would close. But I was having a lovely lunch with friends and hadn’t noticed the time. At one minute to four, I was racing along the street when I tripped over a paving stone and went flying. That one cost me the use of my shoulder for nine months.

I hate being late. So why does it happen so frequently?

Michaela Thomas, a Swedish clinical psychologist, says I may be what is known as a “time optimist”, or as the Swedes say a “tidsoptimist”. “A tidsoptimist is a person who underestimates how long something takes, and also overestimates how much time they have at their disposal,” she says. “So they will often be late for appointments, or rush things at the last minute, and this can create stress for themselves and others.”

The word has a friendly ring to it. Can it sometimes be used as a term of endearment? “It’s not very endearing to have someone perpetually arrive half an hour late for meet-ups, as it can signal: ‘My time is more important than yours’, and it can be perceived as disrespectful,” she says. “Really it depends on the impact the tendency to misjudge time has on others.”

Oh dear. Therein lies the problem with lateness – it doesn’t just create havoc and negative consequences for the perpetrator, but for loved ones and colleagues as well. Moira, a legal assistant, shudders at the memory of when she was due to attend a meeting in Poland with her manager. “As a trainee, it was a huge deal. I slept in, waking up at home in Bristol an hour before check-in closed at Heathrow. Terrified of what would happen, I tried to make it through M4 rush-hour traffic – and obviously didn’t. I had to come up with some feeble excuse about the car that was clearly invented.” Moira has always been “punctually challenged”, as she puts it. “My friend’s dad used to pick me up from school and always said he’d be there 15 minutes before he really would, because he knew I’d be late.”

Sarah Goodall (not her real name) recalls the time she got lost on the way to the funeral of a dear colleague. “I was so late, I ended up running down the street towards the venue. Suddenly, I looked up and realised I was actually racing alongside the hearse. Maybe the driver realised what was happening because he slowed down so I could dash into the ceremony and at least attempt to look composed before the family arrived.”

Given we know that unpunctuality is liable to exasperate and enrage others, why do latecomers find it so hard to mend their ways? “We are born this way,” says Grace Pacie, a fellow member of the late, late club and the author of Late! A Timebender’s Guide to Why We Are Late and How We Can Change. “Carl Jung first identified it in his work on personality types.” People fall into one of two categories, according to Jung: realistic “sensates” and dreamy “intuitives”. The latter type struggle with effectively judging time.

Pacie suggests that at one end of the spectrum there are the “timekeepers” who work at a steady pace, are organised and naturally finish early. And then there are people like me, the “timebenders”, who always push things right up to the last minute.

“Latecomers are a very easy target for condemnation,” Pacie says. “But we have great qualities as well. We see time as flexible and can speed up when needed. We get energised by deadlines and are able to be on time when it matters. We often feel we produce our most creative work when we are under time pressure. Timebenders typically do 80% of their work in the last 20% of the time before a deadline – we enjoy the adrenaline buzz we get from working under time pressure.”

Given that I work in a deadline-driven job, I can identify with much of what Pacie is saying. But I wonder how this plays out in a social context. I’m pretty sure I’m not getting an adrenaline buzz every time I fail to arrive for an appointment on time.

Pacie believes there is a subconscious behaviour driving lateness – the dread of being early. “Typically, we plan to arrive right on time, not ahead of time. It took me a long while to understand that if I am going on a journey that takes 10 minutes, I definitely shouldn’t leave the house with just 10 minutes to spare. Allowing time for something to go wrong is essential. We optimistically assume all the lights will be green and the roads will be empty.” I experience a horrible jolt of recognition when she tells me this. It explains why despite my best intentions, I frequently arrive five or 10 minutes behind schedule.

What about the common criticism that the habitually late have “poor time-management skills”? Fuschia Sirois, professor of social and health psychology at Durham University, doesn’t think much of it. “It’s a very simplistic and superficial view, particularly when it comes to lateness caused by procrastination.”

Her research has focused on why people fail to start or complete an assignment or chore on time. “Procrastination often has nothing to do with time management,” she says. “It’s about poor mood management. It means the person can’t regulate difficult emotions about a particular task, so they put it off. They may be anxious, fear failure or feel frustrated. Or they might focus on the outcome and how that is going to affect their future, which only adds more pressure. Or sometimes, people are just maxed out – they have too much going on with work and family. In all those scenarios, people are tempted to opt for the quick and easy fix – to delay working on the thing. That gives immediate relief.”

I mention that I typically procrastinate over filling out my tax return, but that it is something that doesn’t involve strong emotions – it’s just really tedious. Here, Sirois says, the issue may be the lack of autonomy. In situations where we don’t have much control – hello, HMRC – we are more likely to procrastinate. The payoff is that we get the rebellious feeling of freedom that we can do things in our own time.

One remedy, Sirois suggests, is to have a more realistic relationship with your future self. “Say you’re up against a deadline but you’re feeling tired and uninspired? There’s a great temptation to imagine that future you – tomorrow/next week/next month is magically going to feel enthusiastic and brimming with the best ideas. Ask yourself, will you really have changed that much by tomorrow/next week when you intend to tackle the task? And if you really can do everything next week, why not do it today? Chances are that future you is going to be even more stressed by the task when it’s late.”

Illustration showing woman in cafe waiting for friend to arrive
Late arrival … there are ways to better manage your timekeeping. Illustration: Anne-Sophie Engelhardt at A Human Agency/The Guardian

That habitual tardiness might be caused by certain personality traits is one thing, but now a growing number of people are suggesting that poor punctuality is a symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), known as “time blindness”. The phrase went viral after one woman’s tearful post appeared on TikTok this summer complaining that her employer wouldn’t accept “time blindness” as a reason to show up late for work. Although some commenters mocked the video, psychologists assert that it is a real condition.

“For neurodivergent people, like some ADHDers, it can be nearly impossible to arrive on time and get organised for a deadline,” says Thomas. “If you have ADHD, it’s not your fault if it is very challenging to manage your time, as it is related to issues with executive function in the frontal lobes of your brain. Time blindness is a perception problem, of not having a sense of how much time passes or how much time there is left.”

It can also lead to organisational chaos. “I have ADHD and I’m well known for being late to everything,” says Bryony Lewis, who runs an online gift shop. “The worst one was when I was 24 hours late to a hospital appointment. It was in another town, and after I’d travelled all that way, the very confused receptionist finally figured it out for me.”

Whatever the root causes, what can serial latecomers do to mend their ways? Pacie has some ideas. “If you’re going to a big event like a wedding or catching a flight, create a pre-event deadline which you can be late for. Then when you’re late for that, it doesn’t matter – you’ve built in a buffer.” You might, for example, arrange to meet friends at a pub or cafe beforehand. If all else fails and you really don’t trust yourself to arrive on time, there is always the last resort. “Book a hotel next to the location.”

Regular fixtures, such as a fitness class or choir practice, are common danger zones for punctuality. “We subconsciously cut the time down to the shortest time we’ve ever taken,” says Pacie. “Again, finding something to do close to your location beforehand is a good idea, whether it’s meeting a friend or something that you really want to do.”

She also has some general tips for any occasion, including putting alerts on your phone for when you need to get ready rather than when you need to leave. It is also a good idea to create a new routine where the last things you do before leaving the house are not vital activities such as eating or putting in contact lenses, but tasks that could be skipped, such as taking out the recycling or applying elaborate makeup.

The good news is that sometimes being late can work to a person’s advantage. Photographer Carolyn Mendelsohn was excited about attending a workshop organised by the Royal Photographic Society in Manchester. It would be an opportunity to show her work to an influential curator, Zelda Cheatle, and get feedback.

Unfortunately, she got the day wrong, only realising after the workshop had started – and she lived two hours away. “But something told me I needed to be there, so I got in the car and went anyway. I ran huffing and puffing into the building and found the room where the workshop was in full flow. I snuck in the back, then I crept around to the front to sneak my work on to the table. Lots of funny looks. As I sat back in my chair, the satnav on my phone announced loudly: ‘You have reached your destination.’” At this point, she was four hours late.

“All eyes turned, and Zelda looked up and said curtly: ‘I think we know you are here.’”

It could have ruined the whole day. But when the time came to show Cheatle her work, a series of portraits of girls called Being Inbetween, the curator remembered her and they had something to joke about. Cheatle ended up not only mentoring the photographer, but writing the foreword to her published photobook. In it, she mentions the first time they met – and how very late Mendelsohn was.

So, what should you do if your friend or partner is consistently late? Pacie suggests taking a hard line and never lying about start times. “As soon as a timebender realises that you have lied about a deadline, they will start to anticipate it and arrive even later.”

“And don’t get mad,” she says, especially if you live together and their behaviour often makes both of you late for events. “If you start to shout every time they are late, they will just take this as their starting signal and they won’t get moving until they hear you shouting. See if you can find a different signal. My husband plays bass guitar and when he is ready to leave, he starts to practise. When I hear that sound, I know I’m late. He doesn’t get mad and he gets lots of practice.”

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