Is this you?
You’re known as the guy or girl that’s always late.
No matter what the event, it seems you always arrive a few minutes after you want. You’re late to the party, meeting, date… sometimes even work.
You’ve blamed it on everything. There was a lot of traffic, public transportation wasn’t on time, your family/partner/roommates held you up.
But you’re running out of reasonable excuses. And people have started to notice.
They crack jokes.
They make comments.
Sometimes, you think, they’d rather just not invite you.
You wish you could just be on time, but it seems a built-in part of who you are. Change seems impossible.
But here’s the good news:
It doesn’t have to be a dream to arrive on time, every time. You just need a system. A process that’s easy to follow and guarantees you success.
This is that system.
Strategy #1: Allocate the last minute differently
No matter how much it feels like it’s out of your control to be on time, the only factors that determines this are the actions you take.
You don’t have “bad luck” or “a lateness gene.” To be on time, you need to leave on time. That’s it.
One of the biggest myths about being on time is that you need to stop doing things at the last minute.
It’s not surprising, really.
When someone struggle with time management, or doesn’t turn a project in on time, we tell him or her to “stop doing things at the last minute.”
But here’s the problem:
There will always be a last minute, no matter how well we plan our time.
You’ll have to do something for the thirty minutes before you leave, for the ten minutes before you leave, and for the one minute before you leave.
To be on time, don’t stop doing things at the last minute. Do the right things at the last minute.
Don’t stop doing things at the last minute. Do the right things at the last minute.Click to Tweet
To understand how to allocate our time, let’s break down everything into two broad categories: elastic tasks and inelastic tasks.
Just like elastic, these tasks can shrink or expand to fill the available time. Even though they can be shrunked to zero, they can expand to fill hours.
Some examples of elastic activities are watching TV, playing a game on your phone, checking email, or reading a book.
Inelastic tasks have a definite timeframe, and cannot be shortened or removed. They must be done before you leave.
Examples include changing clothes, making lunch, packing a suitcase, or submitting a project you can’t finish once you leave.
When we’re late, it’s almost always the fault of the elastic tasks. We structure the last 15 minutes before we leave something like this:
When you see it like this, the problem is obvious. Why would you play Angry Birds for 10 of the 15 minutes before you leave, when you know you need 10 minutes to get ready?
The answer is inside your head.
The destructive inner dialogue that defeats us
As the elastic activities fly by, we lie to ourselves pretty heavily.
We usually make one of two mistakes:
- We view our prep work as elastic (“I’ll just take a shorter shower”)
- We forget that other stuff is elastic (“just one more level, then I’ll stop playing”).
(In a minute, I’ll give some actual strategies to reduce your prep time. But for right now, let’s pretend it’s immovable.)
Tim Urban from Wait But Why illustrates this second mistake perfectly in his article “Why I’m Always Late.”
Even when we “know” we should leave at 2:07 to arrive at a coffee shop at 3:00, we convince ourselves that we’ll spend just one more minute on something else.
This continues for another 20 minutes, until we panic.
But by then, it’s too late.
How to turn things around
The solution, of course, is to switch those two pieces.
Finish your inelastic tasks first, then fill up the remaining time with elastic stuff:
When handled this way, you’ll be able to finish what you need to, and still have time for inelastic tasks before you leave.
This means you shower, dress, and eat breakfast first—instead of checking reddit in bed.
Before leaving for a party, you sign the card and get the food platter ready to go, then watch an episode of Friends on Netflix.
But won’t you just spend too much time on elastic tasks then?
No, and here’s why.
The hidden benefit of doing inelastic tasks first
Finishing everything early will make you feel a little uncomfortable. You won’t be able to relax in quite the same way, since you’re dressed and packed and ready to leave.
This means there’s less friction to leaving.
Chances are, you’ve watched TV longer than you should have because you knew you needed to brush your teeth, grab your bag, feed the dog, and turn off all the lights before you left.
When you’ve already done this, it’s a smoother transition.
Without the weight of what comes next, it’s easier to flip off the computer or put down the book.
Strategy #2: Stop being so optimistic with your timeframes
So you’ve rearranged your tasks.
You spend the first few minutes before you leave on what must be done, and only do the fun stuff once you’ve finished.
But still—you’re a few minutes late. What gives?
Chances are, your timeframes are just too optimistic. Here’s what I mean.
You probably know how long it takes to get to a few common places. If you’re like me, you have a list like this in your head:
- Home to work – 15 minutes
- Home to gym – 15 minutes
- Home to grocery store – 5 minutes
- Home to guitar lessons – 25 minutes
We create those lists automatically, and they can be really helpful.
The problem is that we’re almost always too optimistic about those estimates.
How the optimism creeps in
You see, most people wildly underestimate the time it takes to get somewhere.
At its core, all humans are subject to something known as confirmation bias. This is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to focus on results that agree with our preconceived notions of what happens.
Expand for daily examples of confirmation bias
Confirmation bias single-handedly explains phenonema like Murphy’s Law, the idea of a “lucky streak,” and the stereotypes we have about people.
Since we like to get places fast, we tend to underestimate the time it takes us to arrive somewhere.
Almost without exception, the “10-minute drive” isn’t really 10 minutes unless we’re already in the car, there is no traffic, and we hit only green lights on the way.
If you go look it up on Google Maps right now, it might even say 10 minutes. Remember, Google Maps doesn’t calculate waits at stop signs or red lights—and you have to tweak settings for it to recognize expected future traffic.
This short trip may happen a few times, but confirmation bias ensures that we remember those times.
The shortest travel time becomes our new normal, and that normal makes us late.
The shortest travel time becomes our new normal, and that normal makes us late.Click to Tweet
If I were to be honest, my mental list from earlier is all wrong. Using average timeframes, it should be:
- Home to work – 17 minutes (not 15)
- Home to gym – 19 minutes (not 15)
- Home to grocery store – 8 minutes (not 5)
- Home to guitar lessons – 28 minutes (not 25)
How to build timeframes that help you arrive on time
The first step to creating confirmation-bias-proof travel estimates is getting a solid average time.
Clock the time it takes to get to work for a few days, then average it out. Alternatively, record your time on a trip that seems pretty average—not too fast, not too slow.
This gives you a great estimate to use instead.
Another method that works well is breaking the trip up into sections. About every week, I make a trip to another county. I used to give it a broad estimate of “about an hour and a half.”
It was close, but not precise.
But once I broke it up into sections, I had a much better estimate:
- My house to the interstate – 15 minutes
- Interstate to highway exit – 45-60 minutes, depending on traffic
- Highway to main road – 10 minutes
- Main road to destination – 15 minutes
It was 1:25 in non-rush hour traffic, and 1:40 during peak times. This also means I can calculate en route whether I’ll be late.
For a few trips, check your estimates with the travel time and make adjustments as needed. Those estimates will save you headaches for years to come.
In fact, they can even help you arrive early, which I’ll talk about next.
But before that, let’s take a short detour to the speeding myth that adds so much optimism and makes us late.
Defeating the speeding lie once and for all
You’ve heard it before. You might have even said it yourself:
It’s okay if I leave a little late. I’ll just make up the time by speeding.
I get it—the faster you go, the less time it’ll take. In our minds, we see something like this:
The only problem with that model is that it’s not true. If you run the numbers, speeding will almost never make up the time you lose by leaving late.
If you run the numbers, speeding will almost never make up the time you lose by leaving late.Click to Tweet
Eric Ravenscraft wrote a detailed explanation on why speeding doesn’t save time for Lifehacker, but I’ll cover the basics here.
1 The time you save just isn’t that much. If you’re traveling at 70 in a 60 zone for half an hour, you only save four minutes.
2 The time you save is relative. This means that going 10 miles over is half as effective at 60 mph than at 30 mph.
3 The effect is compounded by time. For any driving under 30 minutes, the effect is next to none. Even at an hour of driving, you won’t save much time unless you’re willing to barrel over the speed limit at a catastrophic level.
4 Stoplights curb most of the benefit you’ll get from city driving. The basically neutralize all speeding, meaning the compounding effect is worthless.
We love speeding because it gives us a feeling that we’re making progress, but the time we gain is laughably minimal.
Strategy #3: Make early your new normal
So, you’re ready to go!
You do the inelastic tasks first, you set reasonable travel times, and you head out when you should.
But still, you’ll arrive in just the nick of time. To be truly stress-free, you need to go even further than just being on time—you need to arrive early.
It might sound scary at first. How can you go from chronic lateness to arriving early?
But look at it a different way. You probably think of “on time” as one hard-to-reach target, with a large space of unacceptable late time afterwards.
But it isn’t like that. You actually have a large target beforehand as well, because arriving early is perfectly fine.
Arriving too late can’t be fixed, but arriving too early is easy to fix. Just read a book while you wait or listen to an awesome podcast.
Here are two strategies to make early your new normal.
Add a lateness buffer for complicated trips
When traveling to a place you’ve never been before or taking a trip that might have traffic, a lateness buffer will add a new measure of security.
It won’t prevent you from arriving late if you get a flat tire or the subway system goes down.
But if you have to take an alternate route or hit an unexpected peak of traffic, you’re set.
Here’s how to do it.
- Take your averaged timeframe. This is the number you calculated earlier. (If it’s broken into sections, combine them for this.)
- Add 10-20% on top of it, to cover for extra traffic or a missed exit.
Arrive 5 minutes early to places you know
Have you ever left on time and still arrived right as the event started, or found the person you were going to meet already sitting down at the restaurant?
If so, you know that we don’t usually calculate the door-to-door time that plagues any trip.
Remember earlier I mentioned that it takes me 28 minutes to get to guitar lessons?
That’s only partially true. In reality, it takes me 28 minutes of driving time (presuming there’s no traffic).
I’ll spend a few minutes collecting my things, locking my apartment door, putting my guitar in the car, putting on my seatbelt, and starting the engine.
Then once I arrive, I need to get everything out of the car, lock my car (it’s old so I have to do it by hand), walk to the music store, say hi to a few employees I know, and climb a flight of stairs to the lesson studio.
The 28-minute drive is actually 32 minutes, and if I head out 30 minutes beforehand, I’ll be late.
To solve this problem, I can pretend like my lesson starts five minutes early—and I arrive on time.
This simple solution has saved me a lot of headache—instead of planning to arrive on time, I set my new standard to arrive 5 minutes early.
If I usually head out at 10:00am, anything after 9:55am is now late.
By making five minutes early your new normal, you’re more likely to arrive on time.
Strategy #4: Pre-prepare whenever possible
Ready to take things to the next level?
Improve your systems.
You can change techniques as much as you want, but the ninja-level technique to be on time is to change your systems.
The ninja-level technique to be on time is to change your systems.Click to Tweet
By changing your systems, you can reduce the workload needed before you leave (those inelastic tasks we talked about earlier).
Changing your systems allows you to do much of the work ahead of time, so there isn’t a reason to stress.
In this step, you’ll develop some time-saving processes that will allow you to prepare for an event—even one on short notice—in minutes or even seconds.
Have go-to extras for common events
A few years ago, I hung around a group of friends that got together every few weeks. Each time, we were instructed to bring a small snack to share with the group.
After a few hurried last-minute trips to the store made me stressed and late, I struck upon a system that’s worked wonders for me in a variety of contexts.
The system is simple: keep a stash of common items you need to bring.
In the example with my friends’ get-togethers, I picked up a few bags of chips, a few jars of salsa, some crackers, and different kinds of cookies one week during my normal grocery shopping.
Each time there was a last-minute call for snacks, I grabbed one of the packages from the cabinet before I left.
It isn’t just for events with food, though. I remember on more than one occasion stopping by a store on the way to buy (and quickly sign) a birthday card.
If that’s a common problem for you as well, consider keeping a small stash of cards for birthdays or common events.
If you need gifts, consider buying a variety of giftcards. They make great fast and easy gifts, and if you find yourself invited to parties where a gift is expected, can really come in handy.
Plus, they’re super easy to collect and re-gift.
Depending on what you usually get called upon to do, building an arsenal of go-to supplies can trim last-minute grocery and gift trips from your life.
Create a quick-grab packing system
If you travel, in any capacity, on short notice—or just want to be faster even if you know well ahead of time—this is a strategy you should use.
I started it years ago, have kept it up, and will probably keep one version of this system going for the rest of my life.
The system can be as simple or as complex as you like. My current incarnation looks like this:
- A cosmetic bag with duplicate copies of everything I need—like a toothbrush and floss—plus airline-acceptable containers of toothpaste, shampoo, etc.
- A backpack I keep stocked with basic supplies I use all the time, like earbuds, a notebook, and a pen.
- go-to set of outfits I know work great for almost every occassion, like chinos, jeans, a dress shirt, and a t-shirt.
As a result, I can pack for an overnight trip in about 30 seconds flat.
Whether I’m planning a trip for a while or need to stay overnight on short notice, this makes packing a cinch. All I need to do is throw my quick-grab cosmetic bag into the backpack and collect my go-to outfits.
Since I’m an avid user of Courtney Carver’s Project 333 (where you only wear 33 items of clothing in any given 3-month period), getting the right clothes into the suitcase takes no more than a few seconds.
The step-by-step instructions on how to build this system for yourself is beyond the scope of this article.
With these three systems in place, you can streamline your preparation process and trim valuable minutes off repetitive tasks.
You have the power to be on time
Putting all these steps into action will change how people see you. Imagine for a moment your life when you’re never late again.
Instead of worrying about being on time, you show up a few minutes early, day in and day out, without stress.
You’re casual about it, and a last-minute event doesn’t worry you. Even with the pressure of time, you know you can get arrive peacefully and promptly.
When others show up frazzled and late, you greet them with a calm, collected smile.
In fact, you’ve built up a reputation.
Your boss mentions your promptness in your annual review.
People still joke and make comments—about how you’ve managed to accomplish something they struggle with.
A few friends have even asked you how you do it.
You’ve done something they couldn’t, and it shows.
In short, they respect you.
And you’ve earned it.
Special thanks to Freepik (bookshelf, design tools, lamp), madebyoliver (hourglass), Pixel Buddha , and Round Icons for their work. All icons from Flaticon and licensed by CC 3.0 BY. I would not have been able to design this guide without their icons.