Always late? Find out why
Some years ago when I was chief resident in psychiatry at the New
England Medical Center, I decided it was finally time to enter therapy
myself. I was dating the woman who would later become my wife and I
wanted to explore why I hadn’t yet committed to her.
So I booked an appointment with a noted psychiatrist, about 10 miles
from my home, and left early enough to get there on time. But 35 minutes
later, I was lost amid curving backstreets - and already 15 minutes
Will they sacrifice their time for you?
I called the psychiatrist, apologized, and suggested we reschedule
for another day. “Haven’t you been avoiding therapy long enough?” he
I thought about it. Part of me wanted to dismiss the idea that my
ambivalence could have turned me round and round until I was too late
for my session. It seemed almost comical to think that I couldn’t even
commit to figuring out why I couldn’t commit in a relationship. But I’d
learned enough about the mind’s defenses to know it was possible.
It was also true that I had waited until my final year of psychiatric
training to start out on the road to therapy.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s been long enough.”
“Then keep trying to find me,” he said. “I’ll wait for you, no matter
how much you wish I wouldn’t.”
Now, with the benefit of that therapy and 15 years spent treating my
own patients, I know that being late is a way many of us express a range
of hidden emotions - including avoidance of uncomfortable situations.
Here’s what your lack of punctuality might be saying about you - or
someone you care about - and the keys to making a change.
1. “I feel anxious”
Many people make themselves late, whether once or repeatedly, when
heading to a job or to meet friends, because they feel apprehensive or
stressed. It’s as if deep, unresolved emotions are acting as resistors
in the mind’s circuitry, redirecting us away from the source of our
If you find yourself 20 minutes late for lunch with a few friends
three times in a row, it’s time to wonder what’s making you want to
avoid them: Are the restaurants where you’re meeting too pricey for your
budget? At the back of your mind, are you worried that socializing is
taking time from work you ought to be doing? Does someone in the group
consistently pressure you to talk more openly about your kids or
marriage than you wish to?
Once you’ve homed in on the underlying reason for your feelings, you
need to decide how to address it. Planning is the enemy of anxiety. If
the menu’s beyond your budget, send a group e-mail suggesting a couple
of “great food, great deal” restaurant choices. Your colleagues should
get the idea that they’re stressing you out with the four-star routine
and dial it back. If it’s that you’re leaving too much unfinished work,
plan to devote two extra hours to it the day or evening before.
Whether or not you manage to cross everything off your to-do list,
you’ve already earned your two-hour lunch break. And if someone’s
behavior makes you dread your next get-together, choose a time and place
to raise the issue with her in a direct yet conciliatory way.
The post-lunch phone call might start off, “I was thinking about how
much I look forward to these lunches, for the most part. But there’s
something I’m not feeling so great about that I’d like to talk over with
2. “I’m showing who’s in power”
It’s one thing to think, We’re good friends. If I’m a few minutes
late it won’t matter. It’s quite another to think, She knows I’m busier
than she is. It isn’t a big deal if she waits a few minutes for me to
get there. People who use lateness to signify they are special or more
powerful than those they keep waiting may not plan to show up late, but
there’s often a quiet running commentary at the back of their mind
suggesting that others will - and really should - wait for them.
I once coached an executive who was repeatedly late to meetings with
the team working under her. It had come to the attention of her boss,
who was unhappy about it. When I explored the reasons for the pattern,
she admitted it was rarely the case that a true emergency prevented her
from being on time. “Do you worry whether your team really accepts you
as their leader?” I asked her.
She smiled. “It isn’t like any of them ever leave before I get
there,” she said. Exactly. Waiting is a form of deference. And it can
mean the late person wants - or needs - to be reminded she is superior
and in control. It sounded to me like my client might be keeping people
waiting for exactly this reason. “There are lots of ways you’ve proven
yourself as a leader,” I told her. “Once you believe that yourself, you
won’t need to keep testing people to see if you’ve proven it to them.”
If someone you care about is pulling rank by always running late,
lead by sharing your own feelings in a supportive way. Remember, your
friend or coworker or husband may not even realize that she or he is
locked in a hurtful pattern. Here’s what you might say: “I’ve got to
tell you, when you’re 20 minutes late - and it happens a fair amount - I
start feeling like a second-class citizen. I doubt you want me to feel
that way. Could we agree from now on to meet at a time that actually
works for both of us?”
3. “I need to know I’m loved”
I once treated a client who was chronically late to appointments with
“I don’t think you’ve made it here on time more than twice out of a
dozen visits,” I told him, finally. “Any reason you can think of?”
He shook his head. “I’ve always had trouble getting where I’m
supposed to be,” he said. “My dad used to just take off without me
whenever it happened.”
“When did it happen with your father?” I asked.
“Not often. Once in a while going to school. My dad drove me, but if
I was late - even by a minute - he’d just leave, and I’d have to find a
way to get there on my own.”
“He was unfair,” I said. “And he wasn’t loving, at those times.”
One way we may gauge the affection of others is to test whether they
will sacrifice their time. If you keep your husband waiting for updates
on your schedule, figure out why: Do you feel he should be more involved
in planning dinners or resent that he complained about the last two
weekend outings that you had arranged?
Turn your insight into a confession of sorts: “I was thinking about
why I’ve been keeping you in the dark until the last minute. And I may
have figured it out. We used to alternate planning things for the kids.
But lately, it’s been all me. I know that’s just the way it evolved, but
I liked it when you were scoping out fun things for us, and I miss it.
Can we go back to a team approach?”
If you have a friend who is always late, you can become a true healer
with just one comment like this: “Just so you know, I’ll always wait for
you. You’re much more important to me than getting to a movie in time
for previews. But it would be great if we did leave early enough,
because cutting it too close makes me stressed out about parking and all
Use the profiles delineated previously to nail why you have trouble
being on time. Then you can start fighting back with these practical
strategies. And don’t start “later” - start now.
Keep a date book and be sure to carry it with you: Writing down
appointments makes them real; having that record always handy will keep
you honest. If you aren’t scheduling yourself on paper or
electronically, you’re more likely to give yourself leeway - at the
expense of others.
Factor lateness into your day: Create “lateness buffers” by planning
to leave an event 10 or 15 minutes earlier than your first pass at
scheduling would indicate. Or start getting ready a bit sooner than you
think you need to, reminding yourself you aren’t the best judge of how
much time you need.
Have more confidence in your future: When you steal time to send one
last e-mail, you’re really saying you’re not sure there’s enough time
for, well, your life. Try walking out on the day’s loose ends, and
you’ll find they slowly lose their control over you.
Put yourself in their shoes: Imagine yourself as one of the people
waiting for you, and his or her anxiety that time doesn’t really matter
to you. Doing this exercise might motivate you to be more punctual.
Balance your imbalances: If you’re the chronically late one in your
family and your husband is compulsively punctual, recruit him as a time
Be sure you wear a watch: When you see that the time of your
appointment has arrived, but you haven’t, you may feel just enough “good
stress” to make more of an effort to be on time.
Take time - for yourself: For those who have trouble creating
realistic schedules and sticking to them, meditation can be beneficial
because it forces you to sit quietly with yourself and focus. Yoga or an
exercise routine can do the same.
My lateness started to disappear when my psychiatrist and I got to
the bottom of my trouble with commitment.
It related to everything from the normal pressure I felt to please my
parents to my memories of school phobia as a child. I was associating
commitment - and getting to therapy to talk about it - with all that
early conflict. Choosing to begin therapy, and arriving on time, was
part of the cure, especially since keeping that commitment yielded
immeasurable gains in my sense of self and my ability to express love