HEALTHY LIVING
12/05/2013 08:38 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This Is Why You're Always On Time

Meriel Jane Waissman via Getty Images

We've made the case that late people are not in fact rude or inconsiderate or intentionally messing up your plans. But then again, if everybody was late, we'd have some problems.

"In an industrial society, we need things to work like clockwork," Thor Muller, entrepreneur and co-author of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business, tells HuffPost Healthy Living. "If you can't count on someone to show up on the assembly line, you can't have an assembly line."

So what makes one person first on the assembly line and another stall in the break room?

In a 2012 blog post for Psychology Today, Muller detailed two modes of time as observed by ethnographer Edward Teller in the 1960s. The first is monochromic time, which, with the help of organization and efficiency, is saved and spent wisely. The second is polychromic time, which "is fluid, multi-tasking is a given, and personal relationships trump transactions," he wrote. "As a result, work progress is often unpredictable." The chronically late may be living in polychromic time -- which, it's worth mentioning, values relationships over transactions -- while prompt people dwell in monochromic time.

Punctuality may alternately be a function of the early-bird's perception of time. A number of researchers have conducted time perception tests, says Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again, who has conducted research on punctuality and lateness. DeLonzor carried out one of her own, asking participants to read a passage in a book and stop when they thought they had been reading for one minute. In general, punctual people thought 60 seconds had passed sooner than late people did.

The bottom line is timeliness -- like lateness -- is tricky to understand, and isn't fully. "Punctuality is a much more complex issue than people realize," says DeLonzor. Like any well-established habit, "whether that was prompted by physiology or psychology," she says, being chronically early (or late) is a tough routine to break.

Some early birds learned their behavior in childhood, she says, referring to punctual people she has interviewed who have shared stories of a father who would drive away on the dot, for example. But for others, punctuality may be innate. Empirical studies on the topic are "astonishingly meager," says Lawrence T. White, Ph.D., psychology professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, who has studied punctuality.

That research is also highly contradictory, he says. Most studies that have attempted to link punctuality and personality focus on the Big Five model of personality, which posits that someone's personality can be described along five spectrums: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Researchers did not find any correlation with any of the Big Five personality traits and timeliness in a 2003 study. But a 2006 study linked conscientiousness and neuroticism to punctuality, and agreeableness seemed to predict certain arrival times.

Of course, there's something to be said for the context in which a punctual person is operating, says White. In his 2010 paper comparing the meaning of being on time across cultures he and his co-authors write, "Personal standards of punctuality appear to be best understood within a situational and sociocultural -- rather than dispositional --framework." Indeed, knowing when it's crucial to be on time and when it's okay to fall a few minutes behind (or turn up early) can vary greatly. The authors continued:
Is a dinner guest inappropriately early if she arrives 15 min before the appointed hour? Is a student inappropriately late if he arrives 5 min after the class officially begins? The answers to these questions appear to depend largely on local norms, the nature of the rendezvous, and the status of persons involved.“

And yet, a few similarities do exist among the punctual and prompt:

Punctual people have greater self-control.
Before you get offended, late people, it's not that only early birds have self-control, it's just that they seem to have slightly more of it, says DeLonzor. "Timely people tended to have fewer procrastination habits," she says of her own research conducted at San Francisco State University.

Punctual people are slightly more likely to be Type A.
Or, at least, Type A individuals seem to want to be punctual. In a 1984 study, researchers linked Type A behaviors and attitudes toward punctuality, says White, albeit weakly. "High Type A individuals were more likely to rate punctuality as an important quality in both friends and businesspersons," he writes to HuffPost Healthy Living in an email.

Punctual people are nurturers.
Of course late people can be kind and compassionate, but the punctual crowd seems to be a slightly more nurturing one, says DeLonzor, citing a 1990 study found that people who were on time or early were more nurturing than people who were late. The same study also correlated anxiety and depression with tardiness.

Punctual people leave room for error.
One of the most common characteristics among the chronically late is a habit DeLonzor dubs deadlining. Deadliners are motivated by the adrenaline rush of completing a task or arriving at a location just in the nick of time. "Early people tend to be more cautious," she says, preferring to meet deadlines with plenty of time to spare. Whereas deadliners would see showing up early as a waste of time, punctual people build buffers into their plans to account for the unpredictable worst-case scenarios, like killer traffic or misplacing their keys. Since some liken deadlining to thrill-seeking behavior, says DeLonzor, it's probably safe to say early people are likely on the cautious end of the spectrum, she says.

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