9 Early-Bird Tips for the Habitually Late

UPDATED: January 5, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 2, 2023
man looking at watch to stop being late

Remember the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”)? Take away the long ears, swap in something a bit spicier than “Oh dear,” and you’ve got me. Well, I’m sick of my always-late rabbit habit. Not just because it stresses me out. Not just because it makes other people mad (you should see the hairy eyeballs when my daughter and I straggle into her Saturday-morning music class). But because it’s turned me into a hypocrite. How can I yell at my kids to hurry when I’m always running behind? So I consulted the best possible advisers I could imagine to learn how to stop being late: people who consistently, miraculously, arrive not just on time but ahead of it.

How to stop being late.

My early-bird council includes friends and relatives, spouses of friends and acquaintances of relatives. Teachers. Journalists. Public speakers. A variety of managers. A “computational linguist.” Editors. A shocking number of poets. And all are so full of good advice, they should be writing their own SUCCESS columns instead of kindly letting me share their wisdom right here. These are their seven tips for how to stop being late and how to be on time, for a change.

1. Make being on time a priority.

“It’s just a matter of making the decision to do it,” said Californian Marla Jo Fisher. I was inclined to believe her, since Fisher is a reformed fellow latecomer who would have missed the flight to her brother’s wedding if it hadn’t been delayed.

2. Lie to yourself.

“I get places early by putting the time of the appointment or meeting in my calendar as 15 minutes earlier than it really is,” said upstate New Yorker Ruth E. Thaler-Carter.

3. But be honest about how long stuff takes—both travel and preparation.

“Most people have no idea how long it actually takes to get showered, dressed, etc.,” said Toni Greenberg of Maryland. “One morning, time yourself. You will be surprised.”

4. Organize your space.

Always keep things like cellphones and keys in the same place so you won’t have to hunt for them when you go out. Duh, right? But how many of us do it?

5. Prepare, so you can stop being late.

The day before an appointment, gather everything you will need (directions, medical records, etc.) and put it by the door or in your car.

6. Expect the worst and bump up your departure time accordingly.

That traffic jam? It’ll happen. Getting lost? Count on it. “When kids are involved, leave enough time for three things to go wrong!” said Terri Griest of Maryland.

7. Make it too embarrassing to be late.

“I make a somewhat peevish, but I hope loving, issue of it when someone else is late, so then I don’t dare be late myself,” said Elden Carnahan, yet another Marylander. (What is it about Maryland?)

8. Ask yourself why you’re perpetually late.

It can signal “issues” from ADHD to thrill-seeking to unhappiness in your job, said early birds schooled in psychology—and pinpointing your reasons may lead to life changes that curb the urge to dawdle. I realized, for me, the main issue is anxiety over my to-do list. I’m constantly tempted to cross something off it before leaving the house. Which leads me to my favorite tip:

9. Prioritize your tasks.

Instead of doing a last-minute task that could make you late for, say, a party, leave home early and plan to do one when you arrive—making a call, writing an email, etc. (Several early birds cautioned that you should do said work in your car so you won’t pop in on people while they’re still vacuuming the living room in their underwear.)

Why it’s important to stop being late.

As it turned out, advice wasn’t all I got from my council. What really hit home was the guilt.

Being on time “is necessary for a society to work efficiently,” said Henry Miller of Virginia.

“I guess I want to be known as someone who can be relied upon,” said Californian Dennis Foley, one of several people who likened being late to breaking a promise.

David Sanders of Ohio said his Midwestern upbringing “imparts the lesson that we shouldn’t make anyone wait on our arrival, and that our time is no more valuable than anyone else’s, and so it’s a matter of courtesy not to waste the time of others while we dilly-dally.”

Oh [bleep]! Oh [bleep]! It now seemed obvious that all these years when I’d kept people waiting and they had said, “It’s OK,” they were secretly looking forward to my funeral, where they could crack wise about my being the late Melissa Balmain.

The next Saturday, I rose 45 minutes earlier than usual, drove my daughter to her music class—on schedule!—and faced, for once, zero hairy eyeballs. In fact, no eyeballs of any kind. Class had been canceled.

As we left the building, a chorus of chirps followed us from a nearby tree—the sound, I’m pretty sure, that early birds make when they laugh.

This article was published in February 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock