Elise Volkmann spent years operating on EST: Elise Standard Time. Her close friends and family knew that meant she would always be 15 minutes late.
“I didn’t like it, but I didn’t know how to fix it,” says Volkmann, 30, a massage therapist in Seattle. Until one day she did: she started leaving home at least 30 minutes before she needed to and realised that not being in a hurry was “awesome”.
Christina Garrett, 36, a mum, describes herself as a recovering chronically late person. Being on time felt like “climbing Mount Everest”, she says. Something would inevitably pop up as she was on her way out the door, and eventually “it was expected of our family that we would arrive after the start time of any designated activity”.
Like Volkmann and Garrett, many of us are chronically late – to work, to dentist and hair appointments, to birthday parties and to anything else with a start time.
This tardiness can be explained by a number of factors, including specific personality traits and a lack of time management skills, experts say. Often, it’s caused by attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which is characterised by traits such as inattention and impulsivity.
Chronic lateness is “extremely common among people with ADHD – more of them have it than not,” says Mary Solanto, a professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine in Long Island. Those with ADHD who don’t struggle with chronic lateness typically did in the past but “were able to come up with ways to overcome it”, she says. “It’s a very big problem: people have been fired because they’re chronically late. It has significant consequences.”
In general, people with ADHD don’t have a good sense of time, says Solanto, who developed a popular cognitive-behavioural intervention program for adults with ADHD. “They tend to fly by the seat of their pants and do things spontaneously, and they don’t plan for many things.”
Beyond people with ADHD, there are a handful of personality types more likely than others to be late, theorises Linda Sapadin, a clinical psychologist in New York:
- The perfectionist, who might fuss over her hair or the font size on her work presentation, determined to get it right even at the cost of being late.
- The crisis-maker, who “needs an adrenaline rush to get going.”
- The dreamer, who “doesn’t pay enough attention to detail.”
- The pleaser, who says yes to everyone.
- The defier, who rebels against expectations.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome chronic lateness, whether you have ADHD or simply struggle to prioritise punctuality. Here are experts’ favourite strategies:
Work out exactly how long it will take to get somewhere, then build in extra time. People often underestimate the amount of time it will take to reach their destination, says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist based in Massachusetts. You might assume it will take 20 minutes to drive to the cinema – but that’s not accounting for traffic, finding a parking spot, walking to the entrance, standing in the queue to buy a ticket (or snacks), finding the right screen and then settling into your seat. Go ahead and check Google Maps for an estimate on travel time, but don’t overlook all those transition activities.
And don’t plan to arrive right on time – say, 7pm if that’s when the dance recital starts. “That literally gives you a one-minute window in which to be on time,” Hendriksen says. “And then anything after that, you’re late. If you aim to be 10 minutes early, now you have a 10-minute window in which you can be on time.”
Surround yourself with clocks. “We’re all familiar with digital clocks, but analogue clocks give you a different visual cue, and you can actually see the passing of time,” says Rashelle Isip, a New York-based time management coach. Prominently display clocks everywhere you spend time, she suggests, including your living room and office. And even if you always have the time in your pocket – on your phone, that is – don’t discount a “good old-fashioned wristwatch.” Wearing one can help you get in the habit of checking the time and ensuring your day is proceeding according to schedule, Isip says.
Set lots of alarms. This is one of Solanto’s favorite tips for people with ADHD, but she notes that it can be useful for anyone who struggles with punctuality. “Set one for the time you have to start getting ready to leave and one for when you actually have to leave the house,” she says. Set another alarm for whatever time your appointment starts. These frequent audible reminders can help get your attention if you’ve lost track of time.
Create artificial deadlines. If you’re what Sapadin describes as a “crisis-maker”, you crave the thrill of a tight deadline. So set an extra early deadline for yourself: if you absolutely have to be out of the house at 7pm, tell yourself you’ll leave by 6.30, or else. “You’re fooling yourself, but we do lots of things to fool ourselves, and it works,” she says.
If you’re punctual but dealing with a person who’s chronically late, address the tardiness in a one-on-one conversation
Don’t start an enjoyable – or important – activity before a pressing event. Solanto advises not diving into your favourite video game, or even beginning to tackle a work task, in the hour or so leading up to your intended departure time. “Putting the brakes on” is challenging, especially for people with ADHD, she says. It wouldn’t be surprising if you were still engrossed in the activity hours past the time you were supposed to leave.
Plan what you’ll do if you’re early. “Waiting is really anathema for people with ADHD,” Solanto says, and many prefer to be late than to end up with time to kill. The solution? Bring something you’ll enjoy, like a magazine you don’t get to read often or a special game you downloaded on your phone. That can make the waiting time more palatable, she says. (This can also serve Sapadin’s perfectionist well – having something to look forward to can be reason enough to, for example, head out rather than finishing up “one more thing” at home.)
Envision how you’ll feel if you’re late. When an alarm goes off, signalling that it’s time to start getting ready, imagine what it will be like if you’re late to your appointment. As Solanto puts it: “How is the other person going to feel? How is the employer going to feel, or the teacher? How are you going to feel walking in late, especially when there’s a group involved?” Transporting yourself to that moment, and imagining the consequences of being late in visceral detail, can be very motivating.