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Advice / Job Search / Networking

3 Reasons You're Always Running Late (and How to Make it a Thing of the Past)

“One block away! Be right there!”

If you’ve ever sent that text when you were definitely more than one block away, you may have a lateness problem.

A loose relationship with time might be okay when meeting friends in a bar, but it’s not okay at your job. It’s also not okay for all those networking coffees and “casual” meetings that, although enjoyable, are crucial for your career.

Here are three reasons people are frequently late—and how to tackle the problem.

Reason #1: Not Acknowledging the “Sandwich”

Almost everything takes more time than you think.

Occasionally, I read an article saying that the average sexual encounter takes something like seven minutes. Interesting, right? But you can hardly schedule sex for 10:05 to 10:12 PM, and plan to do something else until 10:04 PM. Of course, people generally interact in some nonsexual way before sex, and sometimes, afterwards, they like to sleep. If you really wanted to schedule everything in life, you would probably need to block out hours for a seven-minute sexcapade.

An hour-long meeting is like that, too.

If you work at home and the meeting is in a coffee shop, you have to close out what you’re doing, get yourself looking decent (especially if you normally work in sweats), travel to the coffee shop, and possibly prepare your talking points, research the other person on social media, and look up directions. When the meeting is over, you’ll have follow-up to do.

In the end, an hour-long coffee meeting might take three hours of your time—because the meeting itself is “sandwiched” between the intro and the outro. Three hours may be hard to accept. That’s why a lot of us are late.

Solution: Block Out Time for the Intro and the Outro

Next time you schedule a meeting, visualize everything you’ll need to do to make it happen. Spend more time than usual getting dressed? Factor that in. Eat beforehand, so you won’t be tempted to stuff your face with pastries at the meeting. Jot down all these tasks down, including the most mundane things—do you regularly go to leave the house, and then rush back and spend five minutes feeding the cat?

Estimate how long each activity will take. Make a pre-meeting to-do list. Add this list as an event before the real event. Set an alert reminding you to stop work and do the “intro.”

When the time comes to actually do all the items on this list, time yourself. Maybe the cat takes only two minutes, but, realistically, you spend more time than you thought getting dressed. Accept it. Build it into your model for next time.

Same with the outro: If you end your meeting at the appointed time, how long will it take to actually get out of the coffee shop (pay the bill, hit the ladies’ room) and get home, and what online tasks will you probably need to complete? Even if your meeting is more of a keep-in-touch, you’ll want to send a thank-you email, or a “Here’s that article I was telling you about,” or a “Please allow me to introduce you to...” And then it’s going to take some transition time to get back into what you were doing.

You can literally put an event on your calendar called “meeting closeout,” or “transition time,” or both.

Reason #2: You Resent the Time Expenditure, So You Deliberately Don’t Allocate Enough Time

Sometimes people are late because they resent and object to having to do the task—or the intro and outro pieces—in the first place.

Historically, I’ve scored maybe a B for being on time to things. And then I moved from Wall Street to Brooklyn, meaning that my commute to most business activities went from 5 to 35 minutes to more like 40 to 60 minutes.

All of a sudden, I was late to things—like, a C-minus performance—and grumpy about it. I’m not new to New York. I know how long it takes to get places.

I realized that, even when I knew it would take me an hour to get someplace, I never left a full hour ahead of time. Basically, I was offended that it would ever take an hour of my time to go to an event. I felt that a 60-minute commute was an outrage, so I denied to myself that things were really 60 minutes away.

Similarly, if you really love makeup, you won’t think anything of allocating 45 minutes to really getting it right. If you don’t love makeup but are uncomfortable going out without it, you may tell yourself makeup takes five minutes when it really takes 20—and that’s why you’re late.

Solution: Acknowledge the Hateful Tasks That Are Making You Late

You never plan for heavy traffic? You think it’s dumb to spend 40 minutes blow-drying your hair?

You have a few options.

First, acknowledge it: When you drive on the highway at certain times of day, you will be caught in traffic. If you want the hairstyle your haircut is intended for, it’s going to take some time. If needed, time yourself doing these activities so you can be realistic about the time expenditure.

Next, ask whether these tasks can be cut, minimized, or made more pleasant.

Could you eliminate a nasty drive by meeting online, making someone come to you, or picking a different time or location? Could you just stop wearing makeup and see what happens?

If you can’t cut, or at least cut down, the time-sucks you resent so much, ask yourself what would make them more pleasant. Do you need some audiobooks for the car? A big fresh iced latte before you get on the highway? High-quality speakers for your bathroom so you can listen to music while getting your eyeliner right? Essential oils you can mist in the air before you make sales calls? Get whatever it is you need to lessen the resentment.

Reason #3: You’re Saying Yes to Things You Should Have Said No To

It’s easy to say yes to something far in the future. It takes so little energy to say, “Sure, I’d love to catch up! Near your office, three weeks from now? No problem,” and then add it to your calendar.

Then, two and a half weeks later, you look at your schedule for the week and get angry. “I have to WHAT?! In the middle of the effing day?!”

When we resent our commitments, we are more likely to be late to them. When we overbook, we often end up being late, with one event bleeding over into another.

Here are some guidelines for deciding when to say no—and what to suggest as a time-saving alternative.

Solution: Apply These Tests Before You Say Yes

  • If something sounds fun or useful, don’t say yes until you imagine the whole “sandwich”—getting dressed appropriately, driving there, parking, getting home or back to the office. Will you be tired? Will it kill the rest of your workday, or make you tired the next day? Will you need to prepare?

  • If a commitment is far in the future, imagine instead putting it on your calendar for tomorrow. If that makes you feel anxious and terrible, well...that’s how it’s going to feel the day before the real thing.

  • Consider the opportunity cost. Sure, this new commitment might sound good compared to existing in an activity-less void, but that’s not where you exist. Every activity you say yes to pushes out something else. Will you be missing a good stretch of work time or thinking time? Sacrificing your workout or relaxation?

  • If you want to say no to something but it’s awkward—or the person asking is your boss—look behind the commitment to the desired outcome. Why are seven people having lunch 40 minutes from the office? See if there’s a better way to achieve the end goal.

If you must say yes, try to combine this commitment with another, equally inconvenient task. An old colleague wants to have lunch, and you feel like you should because it’s good to maintain your network, but you doubt it will be very enjoyable or productive? Counter with a better idea—how about you two get together a bunch of other people from your old job, and all catch up together? Or maybe there’s someone you’d like to introduce your old colleague to. Invite a few other people in your network who have something in common.

You don’t always have to give a hard “yes” or “no.” You can often master your schedule—and get yourself where you need to be on time, without feeling rushed and grumpy—by being more active in curating, planning, and suggesting events that make sense.

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Photo of woman running late courtesy of Shutterstock.

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