Why Are Some People Habitually Late?

There's no single root cause, but over-politeness, optimism, multitasking, and a range of other factors can contribute.
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Where the hell is this guy? (Photo: North Charleston/Flickr)

Where the hell is this guy? (Photo: North Charleston/Flickr)

There is someone in your life that you love: a friend, a family member, whomever. You'd do anything for them, save murder. (You'd hide a body, though.) But because they are who they are, you must make certain concessions.

For instance: If you want to see a movie, you're going to miss the previews. If you're seeing a concert, forget about seeing the first two songs. And inviting them to a surprise party involves instructing them that it begins an hour before it actually does, in order to prevent them from ruining the big reveal. This person, these people, are habitually late. The concept of deadlines, of being “on time,” does not apply to them.

They aren't rude or inconsiderate people in other areas of life. And they've shown the ability to follow other instructions. But, for some reason, they've been deprived of the mechanism for punctuality. Why?

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According to one survey conducted in 2006, 15 to 20 percent of Americans are “consistently late.” Crunch those numbers, and they add up to nearly $90 billion lost in economic productivity. When dealing with dramatic numbers like that, people have an incentive to fix them. The first question, then, is what type of people are late? Evidently, a lot of it has to do with our own internal clocks.

In 2001, Jeff Conte, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, ran a study in which he separated participants into the typical Type A (ambitious, competitive, status-climbers) and Type B (creative, reflective, explorative) categories. He then asked participants in each category to judge, without clocks, how long it took for one minute to elapse. Conte found that Type A subjects felt a minute had gone by when roughly 58 seconds had passed. Type B participants felt that a minute had gone by after 77 seconds.

According to one survey conducted in 2006, 15 to 20 percent of Americans are “consistently late.”

Another study performed by Conte looked at the role of multitasking—attempted multitasking, at least—in making people late. In short: a whole lot. If you're someone that likes multitasking—or, “polychronicity” in the scientific literature—you're more likely to be late to work. It makes sense, particularly in light of a 2013 study from the University of Utah that concludes those who choose to multitask most frequently are, ironically, the worst at it.

But these are all broad explanations for broad swaths of people. Your tardy friend doesn't seem like a Type B personality, or someone particularly interested in multitasking. What is the difference between the tardy person and the punctual one?

“Even in your question there is an assumption that there is a difference,” says Ron Helpman, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in late behavior. “There's no single cause. Chronic lateness is a kind of end-product phenomena. People can have very different sorts of motives and patterns that lead them to be chronically late.”

One problem is a struggle with attention. “Preparing to leave for work is a boring routine,” Helpman says. “It doesn't have a lot of appeal. [Chronically late people] only start to get motivated when they realize they're going to be late.” Distraction also plays a role; if you open up a newspaper, or start a video game, or pour a cup of coffee, it's often hard to leave before that task is completed. “They get sidetracked by things that, in the moment, are more appealing and engaging.”

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. If someone's a people pleaser, they may answer—and then stay—on a phone call long past their ideal departure time. If someone has trouble sleeping, they may be groggy in the morning and snooze themselves into a tardy slip. The chronically late can also suffer from chronic idealism. “They underestimate how long [a drive] is going to take,” Helpman says. “They won't think about the walk to the car, or the time it takes them to park, or the wait for the elevator. They assume they're going to be perfectly efficient.” There's also the sensation that getting somewhere early only means wasted time. “For some people it brings up old feelings of powerlessness or abandonment,” Helpman says.

Tardiness can also be a learned behavior. Helpman points to a friend who used to be chronically late. She sourced it down to the fact that, when she was growing up, she lived around the corner from her school. “She could always leave pretty much when school started,” he says. “She could get away with it.” That thinking had wormed its way into her adult life as well, when she no longer lived right next door to the places she was required to be.

There is one common factor in all of these cases, however: No one seems to be late on purpose. The person doesn't feel as though he is better than whoever he's making wait, or that his time is more important. Trust me, that's my knee-jerk reaction too. Rather, these people usually feel shame about their habitual tardiness, whether or not they show it outwardly. “They feel misunderstood by people and mischaracterized, then they become resentful of other people,” Helpman says. “That resentment can begin to play into, well, fuck you if you're not even going to appreciate how hard this is for me. So those reactions can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, but they're very rarely the initial cause.”

Because there isn't one root cause for lateness, there isn't one solution either. If you are constantly late, you have to figure out why. If it's distractions, remove them. If it's being overly polite, toughen up. If it's optimism, take a cold, hard look at how the world really runs. It's a person-by-person problem, without a universal remedy.

“There are a lot of different potential causes,” Helpman says. “If you don't know the cause it's tough to come up with a solution.”

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