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.