Make time for the unexpected.
By Odette Pollar (California)
Two colleagues are waiting to leave for lunch at 11:30. Two minutes before you are set to walk out the door the phone rings. Your one-hour meeting ran over and has made you late for the next one. You had to stop for gas and there was a line at the pumps, and here you are, late again. “I’m sorry” you say, “It’s just been wild today.” What is the real problem here?
Perhaps you have a circle of friends and one is habitually late. The group makes adjustments. When carpooling, that person is the last to be picked up. The group recognizes a pattern and responds accordingly. Quite often some version of the statement, “I just have a poor sense of time” is offered as explanation. But think about it. If that was the case the law of averages says that a person would run early about half the time and late the other half.
Being on time is a decision — just as being late is a decision. The cycle of chronic lateness can be broken. Thinking and planning ahead combined with having a realistic schedule will help significantly. It is uncomfortable to constantly rush, have to apologize, or sit in traffic fuming at other drivers who are delaying you. Are they really the source of your difficulties?
Strategies for Combating Chronic Lateness
Your internal clock, which provides you with time-related information, may be set a little fast. You tend to underestimate how long it will take you to drive somewhere, gather information, pack, etc. The easiest and best way to remedy the situation is also the lazy way. Do not bother to try to reset your clock. Learn, rather, how far “off” it is, then always add that amount of time to whatever your internal estimate says. So, for example, if you are chronically 15 minutes late, add an additional 15 minutes to your internal estimate.
Even though you run habitually late, do not feel that things can’t change. Teach yourself to think differently about your relationship to time. Begin to see yourself as someone on time instead of saying, “My parents were like this, too. . .” or, “Oh, late again. Well, they expect me to be late anyway.” New messages that counteract the old unhelpful ones are very useful. Think of a person you like and respect who is on time. What does he or she do? Talk about it with them. If there are specific strategies that they use, and there probably are, integrate them into your daily routine.
Be prepared early so you won’t have to look for the keys, locate the sunglasses, or brush your teeth at the exact moment you need to leave in order to catch the bus. Buy gas the night before when there is no time crunch.
Beware the “one last thing” or, “it will only take a minute” beliefs. Leaving at 7:30 in the morning to make an 8:30 meeting means that your hand is on the doorknob at 7:30. In other words, 7:30 is not when you start looking for your keys, searching for your glasses, pouring coffee, glancing through the pile of mail, etc.
Start eliminating some of the excess tasks and responsibilities from your life. Being late can be a way of rebelling—a way of saying, “Oh yeah, you can make me attend, but not participate or be on time.” If you have too much to do, begin to cut back. Volunteer less, skip a season, and say “no” more often—even to little things.
Be aware of grandiose thinking, such as believing that you can squeeze 30 appointments into a day, call all of the clients you need to in four hours, or arrive at Chicago O’Hare airport on Friday afternoon at 3:30, retrieve your luggage, and get downtown in time for a 4:30 event. Magical thinking also takes the form of believing that things somehow will be different (read: better) next week, even though you have not taken any steps to ensure that it will be so.
If you are a chronic over-booker or over-extender, estimate the time to perform each item on your To/Do list. Then add it up. Add 20% extra for the unexpected. That’s really key. So much of what gets people off their schedule is not allowing for the unexpected. In practice, this means not making appointments for every open slot in your day. Sure you may not know when a derailment will happen, but you have enough experience to know that clients call unexpectedly, may be emotional and will need more than two minutes of your time. When you book yourself as though interruptions don’t happen, it is a recipe for a repeated sense of failure, increased stress and anxiety.
Always look at your schedule before agreeing to accept new work or responsibilities. In order to add something, you must eliminate something else from your schedule.
Consolidate similar activities such as answering telephone calls, correspondence, bill paying, and errands, and do them together. It is faster. Similarly, schedule multiple appointments for the same day instead of spreading them throughout the week. This reduces your travel time and parking hassles. Another helpful tip is to remember that when meeting with busy people, ask for the first appointment of the day. Your chances of having to wait are reduced.
Build routine activities into your weekly pattern of life. For example, back-up your computer every Friday, pay bills on the first and the fifteenth of the month only, change the beds on Monday, and replace batteries in smoke detectors every New Year’s Eve.
Being late has a cascading effect. It throws schedules off or forces other people to make additional changes in their plans. Consider what making other people wait for you says. It sends a message that your time is important and theirs is not. Is that really what you mean to convey?
Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload.