The Habit of Lateness

When I was in college, my roommate had a very difficult time getting up in the morning, so he was often running late.  To help himself get to class on time, he set his clock ahead about 5 minutes.  This worked well for about a week.


It took about 7 days for him to get used to the idea that the clock was set ahead, and the method started losing its effectiveness.  No big deal.  He just bumped it another two minutes forward and he started being on time again…for about a week.

I was sitting at my desk reviewing some notes for my next class at 1:50.  I stood up to grab a book off the book shelf and something just didn’t seem right.  It took me a minute to realize that I had seen a clock out of the corner of my eye.  As I looked back I saw 1:51. Now, to many people, this might not seem like a big deal, but I just wasn’t someone who came to class late.  To make it worse, this particular class was with a professor that had hired me to tutor others in music theory. Being late to class was a big deal because it would reflect poorly on me as a tutor.

I scrambled to grab my books and ran down the hallway, down five flights of stairs, across the campus and into the music building.  I ran down the hall to the classroom hoping to slip in without attracting much attention, but when I looked through the door, there was no one there.  The lights were off and the room was empty.  No students, no teacher, no lecturing… nothing.

Now, this is the point where many people would have probably thought, “Cool, no class today!”, but this particular professor had a sense of humor that I had seen him use several times. For example, if a student fell asleep in class, he would continue talking in the same tone of voice and try to get the rest of the class to quietly get up and leave the room without disturbing the sleeping student. The class would continue in another room or the lobby and the sleeper would wake up with no idea where everyone had gone.

I looked around to see if anyone was hiding in a nearby classroom.  No luck.  As I headed back to the lobby, I saw the clock.  It was 1:37. I waited around for 13 minutes for class.

My roommate kept moving the clock forward, and every time he started getting used to it, he would move it ahead a few more minutes.  I had just happened to look at his clock instead of mine because of where I was standing. The clock was a full 15 or 16 minutes ahead.

This is a trick that I’ve heard people recommend.  Just set your clock ahead so you get to places on time. The problem is that being late is a habit and simply moving the clock forward doesn’t actually break the habit.  In fact, it will make it worse.  If you can’t seem to get to places on time, don’t set your clocks forward- move back the deadline.  So if you have a meeting at 2:30, set a deadline for yourself of 2:25.  Once you get to where you are consistently getting places 5 minutes ahead, you’ll have broken the habit of lateness.

Originally published April 9, 2007.


  1. says

    Good stuff! I like Laura Stack’s perspective of arriving- be an “early arriver” as opposed to an “on-timer” or even worse, a “late”. Arriving early decreases stress and let’s establishes yourself as a player at the table, not just a spectator.

  2. says

    Mark, Really good advice. I hadn’t thought about the fact that moving your clock forward actually only deals with the symptom not the problem. One thing about being early is that you leave extra time in case “something” comes up.

  3. Brenda Helverson says

    When I was commuting to 8 a.m. classes, I quickly realized that if I arrived 20 minutes before class, I had my pick of parking spots, could easily get coffee, relieve myself, and be sitting in the classroom before anyone arrived. I am not a morning person, but it was a good habit and worked well.

  4. michael says

    It always feels a little weird to read a blog and feel like they’re talking about you, but then, I really was that roommate with the clock turned forward. Mark and I were like brothers. He was early and I was late. Looking back I didn’t realize how far I’d turned it. Now, thanks to cell phone technology, my watch (my cell) is right on time! Though I have found that living less than a block from work has developed a new lateness habit–I know it only takes 2 minutes to get there so I leave right about the time I’m supposed to be there. That hasn’t helped the whole lateness thing, for sure. However, after reading this blog, I’m convinced of my need to change my ways. So, I’m moving three miles away and aspiring to be where I need to be early and on time, no longer late!
    Perhaps I can blog about this new experience someday!
    Thanks for the good advice, Mark!

  5. says

    People who are habitually late don’t really care what time it is. They get some kind of positive feedback from being late and they’re really not going to change. It’s a passive-aggressive “You can’t make me” reaction. The world can go ahead and start without them.

    My mother was late to everything. There was always some good reason, or else it was someone else’s fault. My brothers and I used to joke that she was going to be 20 minutes late to her own funeral. When the day came and the service didn’t start on time, we all looked at each other and smiled.

    • Connie says

      This is a fact about passive-agressive people. The bottom line to their lateness lets us know they believe they are more important than others. Whether it’s getting 5 minutes sleep or late to pick you up or for dinner. The message is I am more important than you.

  6. Rick says

    The story reminds me of a boss I had one time who had the habit of calling meetings at odd times, but never on the hour or half-hour. For example, they’d be at 2:11pm or 9:52, and never would there be a repeat time.

    The implicit message was that there would be no compromise. The meeting started at that time. Besides, it had a tendency to help me remember those meetings. Of course… it was the boss though.


  7. Rachel says

    I wish this worked. I’m a late person. I constantly try to build in a 15 minute window of time padding to no avail. My brain knows I’m lying to it if I tell it I have to be early…my brain knows the real start time. It’s a nice concept, but only a dream to me. My husband is always early & it drives me crazy. He says he’s going to go somewhere at 1:30, but he leaves at 1:15 or something like that & I’m frustrated that he isn’t spending that extra 15 minutes with me. I always bring lots of stuff with me so that when I’m early I’ll have something to do…trouble is I’m never early, so then I’m carrying around bunches of stuff & I never do anything with it b/c I didn’t have that “early” time. It would be way easier if I were an early person. I always think my life would be perfect if I were to stop being late. I’m constantly trying to figure out what my problem is. I’m sure all you early-to-places-types think you have the answer, but the problem is way more deep-rooted than surface symptoms. I’m not trying to be difficult, just give the perspective of a chronically late person. I think my sense of time is very warped. If I apologize each time I’m late I seem insincere after awhile or I seem whiney…if I don’t apologize I seem like I don’t care. I hate it! I know on-time people think I’m getting something from being late, but I can’t figure out what in the world it would be!

    • Connie says

      There is a saying I heard once, “Man (or woman) will not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” There is no motivation to change for people in a lot of areas. Other people enable this behavior by making sure they are on time and letting the late ones ‘do it their way’. This doesn’t help anyone. Until someone else’s lateness consistently upsets your apple cart, you won’t realize how disrespectful this is and self-focus is its origin.

  8. says

    You must admit is was a funny moment. I have periodically lateness habit but in the end i recover. I just become ambitious and i put an end to laziness.

  9. Purplehaize says

    @Rachel, I completely understand where you’re coming from, because I too really hate waiting around for appointments. A couple of turning points though, a friend of mine commented that the co-workers he felt were not interested in their jobs would have excuses for being late for work, whereas people who would go the extra mile for customers and colleagues were early! I took this on-board, and really started thinking about whether I actually enjoyed my job.

    I also ride a motorcycle, and found that leaving 15 minutes earlier than it would take for me to get to work meant I was less hurried, and could take a “scenic route” if the weather was sunny. I was also less likely to take risks while riding. So it became a win-win to be punctual.

    I look out for newspapers, which I never have time to read, or might just look through my “to-do” list if I’m that early, 9/10 I usually have something to keep me occupied.

  10. Clare says

    You should live here in Ireland! When we moved here from the UK 13 years ago, the unusual time-keeping was the greatest culture shock we experienced. I attended a course where the teaching regularly started an hour later than advertised because the other students hadn’t made it on time. We would invite friends over for dinner at 8 and they’d turn up at 9.30 when it was cold. Clients would regularly arrive 30 minutes late for my appointments – even worse if they got lost. Even after all these years, we’re still the first to get to any social gathering. This is a country where you need to set your watch SLOW.

  11. says

    @Michael – Sorry to tell stories about you on the internet. :)

    @Clare – Mexico was like that too. We we supposed to meet someone to look at a house. After an hour they never showed up. We called and they accused us of not being there. We had been standing right in front of the house the entire time. :)

  12. chris says

    I have a hard time being on time-but it’s not passive aggressive-part of it is scheduling(I’m amedical person)-and I have information coming in all directions, all the time, and have to filter”life threatening”, “can wait”, “have been trying to get that specialist on phone for 3 days” with staff meetings about daiiy issues.
    But some of it is getting out of the moment-if I have a family dealing with their father’s dying,hard to turn them off to get to next sore throat. It’s weighing relative priorities.
    A lot of meetings I go to are very dysfunctional-someone doesn’t know how to run one, and a 45 minute meeting goes on for 2 hours. After reading an article on how Google runs meetings, our office got better, but not some hospital staff issues. They are painful to watch,painful to be in, and nothing ever happens. I have actually stepped in and taken over a meeting, to get to the point, but it’s exhausting, and more confusingly, because I never get the politics,the meetings are often really about something else.
    Anyone have suggestions on how to figure out the real agenda of a meeting?

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