“Sorry I’m late,” Ms. Egami said to the class. She dropped her papers, which scattered in that special way papers do when one is running late.”
― Adam Rex, Cold Cereal
“The longest 60 seconds in the world occur when someone says, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
― Jarod Kintz, If you bring the booze and food, I’ll bring the thirst and hunger
Photo credit: Geeks on the Inside
I’ve been meaning for a while to write about my recent efforts to interrupt a lifelong pattern of arriving at engagements exactly fifteen minutes behind schedule, and when a friend posted this article on Facebook I was reminded. (It’s a useful read; check it out).
I’ve lived my whole life fifteen minutes behind. Whether for interviews, hair appointments, lunch dates, happy hours, or concerts. Even when it really matters—like when my friends were getting married!—or when it directly impacted my immediate welfare (like retrieving a package or a huge check) or, even more significantly, the welfare of my kids, I have either eked in just barely under the wire—not definitively late, but just barely on the leeward side of late—or a few minutes past. I came to perfect the grotesque art of the “cringe-pology.”
Once, having allotted insufficient time, I raced to my own going-away party, opting to take my motorcycle to better beat the laws of physics. Desperate as I was to not be late, I mapped the location on my iPhone while actually still driving my motorcycle (elsewhere I have said that the actions of the very desperate and the very stupid are hard to differentiate). I might have succeeded if not for the cable car tracks my front tire found before I did. A separated shoulder and $1,200 repair bill later, I couldn’t help but wonder darkly whether it was a subconscious urge for a truly valid excuse for my tardiness.
On another occasion I found myself a half-hour ahead of the game for a lunch date with a guy I liked. Somehow it made sense to me to spend that half hour assembling a grandiose surprise lunch: broiled brussels sprouts with bacon, panini, a salad. Having realized my lunch was incomplete, I stopped for a bottle of wine and Pellegrino. I was 20 minutes late, and he was gone.
The worst, without a doubt, was my son’s cello concert. We arrived just as the conductor had approached the microphone and I watched my son, searing with embarrassment, wedge himself into the already-situated orchestra row, causing a ripple of disruption as other students repositioned themselves, dragging folding chairs loudly across the floor, cellos colliding in discord. Somewhere near the back, some teacher brought forth a chair and students put down their bows and instruments to help lift it along until it reached his row. I watched miserably as he made panicked arrangements with the kid next to him to share his music stand.
I’ve struggled with this forever—and it has truly been a struggle, because my every late arrival begins with an absolute desire to be on time. Every time that, despite my best efforts, I saw circumstances both within and beyond my control tilt at one another like dominos to make me, once again and always, fifteen minutes late, I’d know that that “tardiness hangover”—a toxic mix of shame, self-flagellation, and guilt—would color the rest of my day—and in some cases, as with the memory of my son’s concert, I will probably never truly forgive or forget.
Cello concert aside, I think that in most cases, my tardiness caused me infinitely more anguish than the people who waited me out, though there were certainly exceptions. Early this spring, I had a meeting which I believed to be a brainstorm between my client, her developer, and myself. I was running, as is customary, 15 minutes behind. At the ten-minute mark she called me up on speakerphone from the conference room and said, “Necia, it’s ten after12 and you’re not here. I need you to be on time to these meetings. I have six people in the room and we cannot begin without you.” I started to stammer that I’d thought it was only two people, then stopped. Why on earth should that matter?
She hadn’t been rude at all—merely direct—but I felt like I’d been hit with a horseshoe. But somehow even in my total—even bodily—shock at this reprimand, there was something else: gratitude, because she’d given me honesty—and with it, an opportunity to change.
Katie called me on this age-old and maddening habit—one which I called myself on (ineffectually) all the time. But because I held her in such high esteem, and saw I had made her upset, she’d brought home that it was not just an annoying behavior but an actually unacceptable one: not excusable as a “creative” type or because I am—genuinely and pretty objectively—an overburdened single working mother, or because I “made up for it” with great work or going double-time when I was in the room.
I ended up thanking her after the meeting for the roundhouse, and soon afterward, I did some research on the evasive and ADD-ish neuroses beneath this behavior. Many “experts” explain underlying issues which can range from passive-aggression to depression to deep anxieties to compulsive perfectionism. As with horoscopes, I saw shades of myself in all of it; it was just a question of degree.
Where I lighted down with my own cocktail of “underlying causes” is less important here (because if you have this problem, your reasons—or you know what? Let’s call them what they are: excuses—will not be the same) than the fact that I was absolutely tired of it. Tired of the stress it caused, the breathless adrenaline rush of racing to the gate, risking traffic tickets, closing the car door on my dress, forgetting important files, chargers, thumb drives, paperwork and, on occasion, even my purse, because poor planning or distractions had left me harried and time-strapped. People in a hurry tend to compound their errors, from having or causing accidents to agitated performance due to a surplus of “flight/fight” chemicals from their race against the clock.
But what concerned me the most was that people would believe I thought their time didn’t matter when typically the opposite was true. It’s rare that my behavior runs contrary to my beliefs, and when it does, it’s time for a recalibration. Whatever evasive tendencies predisposed me to this behavior were much less important to me than the fact that I wanted to curb it, post-haste.
The good news is that once I committed to that, the results were almost immediate.
The first reckoning was realizing that promptness was entirely within my power. I’m a disciplined person. Somehow, I am never late for certain things: workouts, flights, or work deadlines. If I could be consistently—even relentlessly—on time for anything—even ONE thing, I could be on time for everything. Though timeliness isn’t, for me, innate, it isn’t some specialized skill, so it seemed likely I could stop the pattern without any additional tools, and under my own steam. No self-help books, no counseling. I was just, to coin my mom’s favored phrase, “fed up.”
In my case, my tendency to be late is exacerbated by overbooking myself with multiple deadlines or promises, along with childcare and errands and too many appointments or deliverables. Not packing my schedule too tightly, and not planning anything at a time when a project was coming due, were integral in turning things around.
Next was mindfulness of my distractive nature…the fact that when I find myself early, I try and accomplish MORE shit (Sweet, I’m early! I’ll throw a load of laundry into the washer! I’ll clean!). When it’s a presentation I’m headed to, I’ll embellish my (already finished!) presentation: create another slide, do a cooler cover. I want to really knock it out of the park, and in doing so, I’ll slam shut the marvelous window of advantage I created by being so proactive prior to my time-sabotage. This part is harder and it is ongoing: I must identify the behavior as it happens. With time it gets easier—it’s now a totally recognizable sensation when I’m compelled to switch focus under stress. I check myself now: I literally say—even aloud: Now is not the time for that.
As a result (and I do in fact keep a tally), within a month I had gone from probably one out of five appointments arrived at on time, to 5 out of 6. Since then, I have slipped a bit since my top rate in September, though the attrition is with close friends who I know will forgive me (and part of that forgiveness rests on knowing that I am trying assiduously to modify the behavior) and not with clients.
My record is not perfect and occasionally, life intervenes. Recently, I spent a half hour digging through the house for my purse, which as it happened was perfectly covered by my son’s discarded backpack (something something about apples and trees here). In that case, the risks of being late (my friend being annoyed) outweighed the risks of being on time but pathetic (she’d have had to pay for my parking and our breakfast, and I could have been in big trouble if a cop pulled me over). Other times, crazy traffic delays and other events just sabotage us. But in most cases, if you’re chronically tardy, “things” are typically not the culprit, and using them as excuses is an obstacle to correcting a problematic behavior.
If you are a “15-minute” person (or even farther afield from your committed meeting times) I encourage you to really see it for what it is: a problem. An actual impediment to your personal relationships. Because I promise you, even if everyone is too circumspect to just say, “Hey. You being late really sucks for all of us”…they are thinking it. If friends or coworkers joke about how they’ll send you the appointment at an earlier time, or say, “When you say 7:00, do you mean in (Your NameHere) time, or Pacific Standard?” they are trying to find a gentle way to say “You’re predictably late, and it’s inconsiderate and rude.”
If you recognize yourself here, consider that you may be holding yourself back in all kinds of ways over something you can muscle your way through—but only if you believe it’s important. No matter how polite they are, your friends and colleagues probably think it is. And as a person haunted by a certain cello concert, I tend to agree.