The Unbearable Lateness of Being: Breaking the Tardy Habit

I’ll never forget it.  I was in first grade, and it was the last day of school.  My teacher, Mrs. Cook, was wrapping things up for the day and passing out things for us to take home, like art projects, old papers, etc. “I’m going to pass out the attendance cards for you to take home to your parents,” she announced.  “Some of you have no tardies, and some of you have a few.  SOMEbody in here has been late in arriving to class TWENTY-ONE times! Can you believe it?” We all dropped our jaws.  We couldn’t imagine who that was.  After the white, 3 x 5 cards were distributed, I looked at mine.  In the blank next to the word “Tardies” was a penciled “21”.  The 21-timer was ME.  I was mortified, and even more mortified was my mom, since she drove me to school, sometimes in her nightgown and robe, rushing to get me there (and I lived less than a mile away).  “I had no idea you were late that many times,” Mom said.  “I never heard the bell ring.”  And the teacher had never said anything to me or my parents about it, but had been quietly writing it all down, all year.  So much for helping a kid learn and improve!

Over 40 years later, I’m still late to things probably about 60% of the time, even when I think I’ve carefully planned ahead.  My teen’s rate of being late is even higher, that is, whenever there are not harsh consequences like those imposed at her school.  At home, we’ve had to leave her behind at times when we can’t wait any longer (if you’re a longtime blog reader, you may remember the time she had to bike the 2.5 miles to church after the rest of us had left…). Emmie is much better about being on time, although as I type this she is serving day 3 of a 4-day “lunch detention” for being late to her science class four times.  “Mom,” she says, “I literally walk through the door right as the bell rings and my teacher still counts me tardy!”

Is being habitually late something in our genes, or skills that weren’t taught and passed on through generations? An article at nytimes.com says that some experts believe we can be hard-wired for lateness, something embedded deep in our brains.  I have a feeling that at one point in his life, my dad may have battled lateness because by the time he had me, he was uber-on-time everywhere he went.  For example, if an airline told him to be at the airport two hours before check-in, he’d be there with three hours to spare.  I’ve often thought that planning to the extreme like that might be the only solution for folks like me—just plan to get places way ahead of time, and take a book along.  Only when folks like me try that, stuff always seems to get in the way…

Dad always used to tell me when I was growing up, “You’re going to be late to your own wedding!!”, so when that day finally arrived, I was determined to prove him wrong.  I got to the church with one of my bridesmaids at least three hours before everyone else, so I felt pretty good about that—until Andy pointed out that I was still delayed a few minutes in getting dressed and being ready when he knocked on the Brides’ Room door to take me to the photo shoot (we took pictures a couple hours before the ceremony)…

Is there anything a chronically late person can do? Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out, says on WebMd.com that first you need to figure out what kind of late person you are.  She says there’s a difference between people who are late by varying amounts of time, and those that always run, say, 10 minutes late.  The former is a “technical” reason that might be able to be cleared up with more realistic time expectations; the latter has underlying psychological reasons.  “If you are literally always 10 minutes late,” says Morgenstern, “it’s psychological. You’re arriving exactly when you want. The question is ‘why?'”  The article goes on to say that it could be leftover rebelliousness from your youth, or the inability to get moving unless there is an adrenaline rush to push you. (Hmmm…not sure exactly which camp I fall into there…)  Diana DeLonzor, a former late person and author of Never Be Late Again, says in the nytimes.com article that there’s another type of latecomer, kind of a composite of those mentioned by Morgenstern: “the producer”, who gets an ego boost from getting as much done in as little time as possible. “Many late people tend to be both optimistic and unrealistic,” she said, “and this affects their perception of time. They really believe they can go for a run, pick up their clothes at the dry cleaners, buy groceries and drop off the kids at school in an hour. They remember that single shining day 10 years ago when they really did all those things in 60 minutes flat, and forget all the other times that everything took much, much longer.” (Yep, and probably forget that the street lights don’t usually all turn green like they did on that day…I think I’m a “producer”!)

The WebMD article says that the majority of people who are late fear boredom, and can’t stand the thought of being somewhere early with nothing to do (yeah, that’s me, too, when I don’t have a book or a pen and paper or a working cell phone…)

Both Morgenstern and DeLonzor offer some helpful suggestions, like keeping a written log for a few days of the actual time it takes to do everyday tasks, so you can better estimate time in the future.  Or always having something absorbing and meaningful to do while you wait.  Or making yourself walk out of the door at the time you plan to do so, and not get distracted by answering the phone or doing other last-minute things.  I would offer another hint to go along with that–  to find your keys and gather everything you need to take with you an hour before you need to leave, and put it in the car (the girls and I never plan for this “last minute gathering of stuff” and even if we’re dressed on time, it can really delay things as we rush to grab everything, not to mention we end up forgetting stuff).

The folks at EmpoweringParents.com offer some good suggestions specifically for kids who are chronically late, such as making them pay for lateness (5 minutes off of their computer or video game time for every 5 minutes that they’re late somewhere) or allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of being late, like being benched from playing in a game or getting a tardy slip.
One strategy that has worked around here, the few times I’ve used it, is simply giving a false time about when we’re supposed to arrive somewhere, for example, telling Allison something starts at 5:30 even though it starts at 6. That’s worked wonderfully, although I’m not sure it’s teaching the right coping skills since technically she’s still running late when we get there right on time!

But I really do want to equip my girls to be successful adults, and if I want them to be adults who get places on time, then first and foremost, I have to be that kind of adult.  They need to see me making an effort to change if I’m going to expect them to do the same.  And right now, having dramatically altered my eating and exercise habits for almost five months, dropped two sizes and lost 13 pounds, I’m feeling pretty capable of change! 

So how do I propose to be a more punctual person? Through writing.  I plan to get places 15 minutes ahead of time, and later, write about what happens in a journal.  Both the good stuff, and the crazy stuff that might get in the way.  Mostly for my own use, but because I know that others struggle with this same issue, I’ll post an update on the blog at some point.  And if that doesn’t help me be on time, then I’ll increase the time frame to 30 minutes.  Will I be bored out of my mind as I wait? Doubt it.  Something just tells me that it’s going to be very interesting.  I may read 10 more books in a year as a result. Or make a new friend.  Or pray more.  Or have the most buffed up fingernails in town.

At the very least, I will be on time. I hope my kids notice.

15 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lateness of Being: Breaking the Tardy Habit”

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