What You’re Saying When You’re Late for an Appointment

Time to go!
Time to go!

I was eight minutes late for my lunch with SL. He stood up to greet me, smiling, and gave me a present—a book he had just published.

A few minutes into our conversation—we share many common interests as well as overlapping business methodologies—he asked me, “So… what do you think about punctuality?”

Embarrassed by the not-so-subtle reprimand, I told him that I thought it was very important and that persistent tardiness was inexcusable in a businessperson.

“Don’t feel too bad,” he said. “I used to be guilty of the same thing myself.”

“You used to be tardy?”

He had. And he’d broken the habit in two stages:

First, he realized one day that all the businesspeople he knew and admired were punctual, even those who carried enormous work schedules.

“If they choose to be punctual,” he thought, “I must.”

The second event that broke his bad habit was a game he partook in at Young Presidents’ Organization meetings. Anyone who was tardy—or who left the room for a phone call or left the meeting early—was penalized by fines.

“It wasn’t the fines that made it work,” SL said. “It was realizing that the behavior was rude.”

Being late says something that you might not intend. As former Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown once pointed out: It says that the tardy person thinks his time is more valuable than that of the person who is punctual.

This is certainly never my idea when I’m late for an appointment. But I know from a frank conversation I once had with a colleague at my first job that it can seem that way.

“You have no idea how much it infuriates me when you are late,” he said to me over lunch. “It’s insulting.”

I wanted to tell him that this punctuality thing is just a bad idea inherited from the Reformation. That it is a Calvinist principle masquerading as morality. I wanted to point out that in many parts of the world, people don’t fret about being late.

People are “hep to time,” as Dennis Hopper said to Peter Fonda (or was it the other way around?) in Easy Rider.

I wanted to say all that… but I didn’t. I’m not living in a Third World country, or transporting illegal drugs into this one. I’m a businessperson, and we businesspeople in America believe in being on time.

So be it.

My new plan is this: I’m going to make it a habit to schedule time “to get there.” (This is my big problem. I act as if I can be transmaterialized to my appointed destination with the touch of a button.)

I’ll get to each appointment 15 minutes early. I will bring with me something I can do while I’m waiting—something important, like reading a report or writing a note—that can be done in 15 minutes.

I will look forward to this time by myself before the other person shows up. And when he does—so long as he doesn’t come too early—I’ll be ready and in a good mood, not rushed and feeling guilty.

Elaborating on the above just a bit, here is a simple, four-step cure for tardiness:

  1. Schedule your arrival at least 15 minutes early.
  2. Schedule your departure to allow for traffic and other delays.
  3. Bring something useful (and, if possible, enjoyable) to do while you are waiting.
  4. Reward yourself afterward with some small treat.

I suspect that if you and I were to do this five times in a row, a new, better habit would be formed. I’ll let you know how it works for me.

[Ed Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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