Dictionary definitions of the word “late” are invariably non-judgemental. They say the word means “after the expected or usual time,” or “delayed.” They don’t acknowledge that being late is nearly always a negative thing. It’s negative because it means you’ve missed something, you’ve kept someone waiting, or something didn’t happen when it was supposed to. The most significant characteristic of lateness, however, is that – contrary to what most people think – it’s hard work.
Most people believe that being punctual is hard work. Of course, it takes an effort to be do something by an agreed time, or to be somewhere at an agreed time. Yet, it’s nothing compared to the effort needed to be habitually late. For starters, being late disrupts your life and the lives of others, and annoys everyone affected. Worse still, it degrades your reputation because people regard you (correctly) as unreliable and impolite. The fact that a habitually late person is willing to put up with all that aggravation raises the obvious question: Why would anyone want to suffer those consequences regularly?
The answer is that habitually late people get a payoff for their lateness – an almost narcotic hit. It’s an acknowledged adrenalin rush stimulated by the sheer risk involved – a sort of kick from living on the edge. Few are conscious of their addiction, yet it’s so engrained in their being that they’re willing to accept the scorn of others and a chaotic life just to experience it. Another group gets a different kind of kick out of being late. That group uses it as a means of exercising power. They misuse their seniority by bullying others just to show who’s in charge. All they get is loathing and disrespect.
In many ways, the situation has become worse in recent years. A big culprit is the cell phone. For most people, the cell phone improves efficiency. It does the opposite in the hands of a compulsively late person where it acts as an aid to their addiction. The cell phone makes it easier to be even later by enabling the delayed person to text a series of excuses before apologetically bursting into the meeting 45 minutes after the schedule start time.
A whole universe of people operates on a different plane. They’re people with integrity. Their work is smart because they meticulously assess the value of every goal and carefully plan the most efficient way to reach it. They’re proud of their work and respectful of others. In their world, punctuality is a given; being late is not in their dictionary. They’re always early for appointments and the only meaning of the word “late” they know is working late because they like their work. It’s easy to identify them. If they work for themselves, they’re successful. If they work in big enterprises, they’re leaders. If they’re in politics, they’re visionaries. If they’re in relationships, they’re nurturing and, if they’re parents, they pass on to their children the value of respecting themselves through respecting others.
The payoffs of being on time are significant, yet their manifestation is subtle. People rarely register your punctuality on a conscious level, but when you’re late, it’s chiselled in stone because people remember things that annoy them. More importantly, however, positive or negative traits are added to your personal profiles. These traits may or may not be recorded in a physical file or computer database, but they’re filed away in the minds of co-workers colleagues, employers, clients, partners and friends. The compulsively late person’s profile is filed in the category marked “unreliable/disrespectful.” Having that label is a huge burden in business and in personal life. It hobbles careers and spoils relationships, sometimes almost before they start. Consistently late people may have some positive traits, but their lateness tarnishes them. They’re aware of their behaviour, but like most addicts, they downplay its negative effects especially to themselves, labelling the complaints of others as overreactions. They rarely appreciate the true implications of their behaviour; if they did, they’d alter it.
Like most addictions, compulsive lateness has a cure, but like most addictions, the cure is not painless; it requires planning and commitment. The best way to fight it is to set one clear and immutable goal. That goal is not that you will never be late again. It’s not even that you’ll always be dead on time. No, the goal is that, from now on, you will always be early. People, who are usually just on time for appointments are nearly always stressed as the time approaches because they worry about being late. People who operate in the “always early” mode, however, are not just always a few minutes early; they’re playing a completely different game. The game is different for three reasons. First, like a student cramming outside the exam room, they have those vital extra few minutes to revise the main points for the meeting. Second, because of this revision and the fact that they’ve had time to relax in advance of the meeting, they’re rarely stressed when it starts. Third, they’re more productive throughout the meeting and their participation is more valued because they’re relaxed and better prepared.
One final reason to get rid of habitual lateness is that it’s rarely an isolated trait. You might call it the tip of the “bad character iceberg” because it’s usually a sign of bigger, but not immediately obvious flaws. Most chronically late people are also unreliable, impolite and disorganized. So, eliminating chronic lateness is likely to eliminate the other faults as well. The sooner the process is started the better because the implications are nothing less than life transforming.