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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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November 30th, 2009

What Works: Being On Time

The spiritual value of not running late



This is one I still struggle with. A lot. I’m in no way an expert in getting places on time. But I’m much better than I used to be. And the reason I’ve improved is that I’ve come to understand more and more how it’s not just about time management. If you’re a chronically late person, it can carry behind it a lot of other issues — disrespect, dishonesty, creating chaos, self-centeredness, to name a few — and it bothers other people more than you realize.

There are so many reasons to be on time. The most obvious is that running late is stressful. It adds to the anxiety in your life with no change in outcome. Whether you’re early, just in time, or late, once you’re there, you’re there. But running late or cutting it close means that the whole period of time leading up to it is stressful. Usually some of that anxiety spills over into the time after you get there too. And the childish thrill of getting there in the nick of time does not erase any of that stress.

Being late is an expression of disrespect to those who are expecting you. You are saying, either consciously or unconsciously, that you don’t value their time as much as your own. This has been a bad pattern of mine at jobs throughout my life – a part of the attitude that they are lucky to have me. It’s worse than that, though. There’s a qualitative difference between your time and theirs. Because you know you’re late, whereas they don’t know what’s going on. So, in many cases, they’re putting everything else on hold because they are expecting you to show up at any moment, when you still might be 15 or 30 minutes away. You can help alleviate this a bit by calling ahead and letting them know you’ll be late. It won’t get you there on time, but at least it gives them the possibility of putting that time to good use.

The most important reason to be on time goes back to the column I did about honesty. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.'” (Matthew 5:37) If you tell people you’ll be somewhere at a certain time, to be late is to break your word. This isn’t true if your travel plan was reasonable and something unusual made you late. Things happen. But if you don’t make a reasonable effort to get somewhere when you said you would, then you are not being true to your word. This is often part of a bigger pattern of cutting corners, of finessing the system, of self-seeking behavior. We gain self-esteem and the esteem of others by taking estimable actions, like honoring our word.

(My friend James observed the other day that the ability to call or text from a cell to tell people plans have changed has made people less responsible about sticking to our original plans — we don’t take plans as seriously as we did when there was no chance to adjust them en route. The fact that you can call and say you’ll be late doesn’t make you on time; it just makes you a little more considerate.)

And often, even if we think we’re not inconveniencing others, we are. If you arrive late at a movie theater or group dinner, everyone else has to absorb your frenetic energy as you come barging in — even the strangers at other seats or tables. You are making everyone else deal with your lateness, your distraction.

Even if you’re not meeting someone, even if the date is with yourself, you are still disrespecting that person — yourself. You had made a plan because it mattered; now you are placing the urgency of trivialities or the lure of sloth above it. And the additional stress we add to our lives by running late is toxic. The self-recrimination covered with justifications is corrosive to our self-esteem. 

Having the time to be present

When we arrive places early, the whole energy of our experience can shift. This may not be as important karmically as some of the other reasons, but it definitely affects our general happiness. At a recent workshop with Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers including A Return to Love, she came strolling out half an hour before the start time and chatted with us early arrivers for 10 minutes or so, then went backstage for final preparations. It created a more grounded, open mood for the event. It was possible because she was early and we were early. If you build the time into your plans to arrive early and linger for a bit afterwards, you create space to relax and be more fully present, and you create opportunities to interact with people or other elements of the environment that you’d miss if you rushed in and out.

Here’s what I aspire towards and, now, sometimes, achieve.

You aim for getting places 10 or 20 minutes early. You use an honest assessment of how long it will take to get where you’re going. When you’re ahead of schedule, you don’t squeeze in extra tasks that eat up that buffer time. If everything goes smoothly, you arrive at appointments 20 to 30 minutes early. If you’re meeting someone, you relax, sit quietly or take out something to read. If you’re at an event, you get a much better seat than you used to. If things don’t work out so well, if each connection in your trip is slow, or if one part is worse than that, you still get where you’re going on time. And on those rare occasions where you’ve done everything right and there really is a problem, you can be late without guilt. Knowing you’ve taken the right actions, you can let go of the results. But most of the time, you’ll be on time and enjoy being more relaxed and more present.

That’s the ideal. I fall short most days, but while my actions may not be perfect, my attitude is transformed. I no longer think it’s OK to be late. I make honest plans, even if I don’t always fulfill them. And when I am late, I take responsibility, both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean I apologize profusely and wait for people to tell me it’s OK. It’s not OK and they don’t need to tell me it is. And I don’t say, “Oh, man, you wouldn’t believe the trains/traffic/etc.” I say, simply, “Sorry I’m late.”

Have you struggled with being on time or been on the receiving end of lateness. Share your experiences, and any insights you have had on its meaning for you. Comment below or email me at phil (AT) bustedhalo (DOT) com.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • P

    Why does everyone (esp. the chronic early bullies) always jump to the conclusion that it is intentional, lazy, selfish, and rude?? Some of us find it to be a very grievous problem. I’ve spent decades fighting it, attending seminars, reading material, trying whatever is suggested. It either doesn’t work or doesn’t last.

    I find being early rude and expecting someone to be early and to wait for you to be even more selfish and rude than those who are late, b/c that is at least not typically planned. Most of all, I find all the haters and judgers incredibly rude and selfish.

    Some of us are just a hot mess when under pressure. I can calculate the time it takes and then double or even triple it and still be late. I can’t handle the stress of demands or keeping up with society. The very thought of not making it sends me into a panic where I then mess up. It’s like telling a klutz to never stumble or break things – the more pressure and worry they have on it, the more that they’ll do what was not desired.
    I get so upset over being late and disappointing people that I’ve done everything from cry to try to offer to buy them something. I have been on time and even early (though I try not to disturb the place by going in until the appropriate time), but it almost seemed more like luck. It isn’t simply by intent, as I ALWAYS intend to be on time or aim for early and to wait outside.

    I’m always open to tips, but the ones given don’t work. Most publications try to guilt and shame you into changing as if we all are irresponsible and selfish and don’t care to see the consequences it has. It breaks my heart to let people down. I feel let down by my repeated failures, too.

    All I’m saying, is why not try to be supportive and helpful instead of finger-waggin’ on a high horse?! Everyone has their weaknesses; no one is immune. I’m not saying the author was doing this, since they struggle with it, but their reasons are by their own admission selfish. Not everyone’s reasons are like that. Some of us give it our all and still fail.

  • Esmeralda Garza

    Great timing for me to get this message, as today I was running late for work…again. I certainly will make an effort to improve on my timeliness.

  • Barbara Loughridge

    Wow! What a timely message. I was recently discussing with friends ‘why I’m always late’, and after some soul-searching, decided it’s because “I hate waiting”..any time,any where, for anyone! How ironic! I’m determined to use some of Phil’s suggestions. Thanks!

  • Matt from St. Iggy’s

    Phil –
    Great article! I meant to write something sooner, but was running a little late the past few days. (8=}
    Cheers –

  • Lisa

    Growing up, my mother was always late which caused a lot of distress. I even missed a band concert we were so late. When I bought my own car, I went early without her telling her she could catch up with me. I have found many years later that she actually gets to events on time more consistantly then in the past.

  • Rich

    Thank you so much. You described my experineces and struggles with the minding the clock to a “T”. I have learned that when I am heading for a particular place to meet folks, it is so important to keep them in mind as I travel. It helps. It beats setting your clock ten minutes ahead, which you add into your calculations when you want to know how much time you have! Manipulation never works, especially when you are trying to manipulate your own self!

  • Janet

    I can totally relate to this, I’m always a few minutes early. I have a good friend who is always running at least 15 minutes to 1/2 hour late. She’s gotten better over the years, but whenever we would get together we would always tell her that our plans or the movie started 1/2 hour earlier, just so she would get there on time.

  • Catherine

    Thank you so much for writing this; it came right on time for me! As I was reading, it occurred to me that all those ‘race against time’ formula movies we all grew up watching were so detrimental. Childish thrill, indeed!

  • Gabriele

    When I was growing up my Dad was obsessively early – to him being on time was late. He never lost his temper or shouted but we knew better than to be late. Ma reacted to this rigid time consciousness by always being late and making him late. Dad was an accountant and time was money – billable hours were what counted. The only time I ever saw it blow up between them was my wedding when he insisted the bride arrive early and Ma was determined that I would be late.

    My point is this ,, Ma was not being rude or disrepectful and Dad’s time obsession was a form of bullying. It is always a matter of perspective ….

  • Violeta

    I enjoy this article and found the toolbox helpful; however, there are some factors not mentioned in the article that affect some people that are late, 1) transition anxiety, and 2) efficiency.

    Transition anxiety is type of anxiety experienced by some when they have to depart from one place to go to another. One solution is to start saying goodbye at least 15 minutes earlier than usual.

    If employers would assign hours that match employee’s highest efficiency, you would see many people perform better and also be better on time. I tried going to bed early, getting up earlier, going to work early. Is all the same, my brain does not function at 8 am, but I’m extremely alert at 9 am. I just want to emphasize that everyone that is late is not disrespectful.

    So here are some of my tools that have helped me be on time:

    1. start saying goodbye 15 minutes prior
    2. be honest (like the toolbox above), add those minutes it takes to walk back/from, stops for getting coffee, buying your train ticket
    3. if you are not a morning person, then prepare the night before
    4. give an approximate time frame (I’ll be there from 9:15 to 9:30) not a specific time
    5. put a dollar in a piggy bank for every minute that I’m late (I haven’t figure out what to do with the money yet — I’ll take suggestions)

  • cathyf

    I have a brother who was always the last person ready who made us all late. Because of that, I am pretty obsessive about being on time, and get very upset whenever I mess up and find myself running late. But mostly I am on time, and I think that it’s pretty important to avoid having emotional reactions to other people’s lateness. The only person you can change is yourself, so if you are the “victim” of another’s lateness the only way to fix the problem is to stop considering yourself a victim.

    If you are a late person trying to break the habit, all of those self-lectures about disrespect are a really good tool. If, however, you are using this as fuel to feed your anger at another person’s lateness, then stop it right now!

    A former pastor told us a fantastic story in a couple of homilies. When he was in college, he went to Confession, and he was really annoyed and angry at one of his friends. So he ranted for awhile, until finally the priest said, “so, when are you going to stop confessing other people’s sins and start talking about your own?” We all had to laugh in self-recognition…

    So if you have been on the receiving end of lateness (or anything else) it’s really important to realize that the level of annoyance or disrespect — or charity and understanding — that you feel is the thing that you control.

  • maryann

    I can’t agree with you more. I am obsessively on-time or early. I find it very annoying when others consistently arrive late. It is very inconsiderate and disrespectful of my time. I also agree that there is a frenetic energy that comes with the lateness and effects everyone there. Thanks for addressing this.

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