The Most Overlooked Reason Why You're Late

There seems to be one common thread running through the behavior of chronically late individuals that is probably the most shared reason for them being perpetually tardy, and yet it is consistently overlooked. You are late because you don't want to be early.
11/14/2014 08:27 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

For a good percentage of Americans, three little words habitually accompany one's entrance into a business meeting, a gym class, an appointment with friends, or a date...

"Sorry, I'm late."

Does this sound like you? Much important work has looked at why people are chronically late. The truth is that there are many reasons why people just can't get somewhere on time. But there seems to be one common thread running through the behavior of chronically late individuals that is probably the most shared reason for them being perpetually tardy, and yet it is consistently overlooked.

You are late because you don't want to be early.

For the punctually challenged, this very basic motivation drives behavior whether consciously or unconsciously.

We are quite familiar with the group out there who is always on time because they hate being late. I fall into this category. In fact, I'm paranoid of being tardy. I get to places an embarrassingly amount of time early, which requires me to park my car around the corner and wait surreptitiously just so others don't notice the real time I arrived. (Sometimes I think that if I was a ninja, I would always be getting to the locations dreadfully early, yet I would be comforted in the fact that since I am a ninja no one can tell if I am here.)

Because people, like me, in this first group hate to be tardy, we are always on time. This team is definitely pro-early. Being on time is synonymous with being early.

But there is another group out there. Just as the first type hates to be late, this second group hates to be early. These anti-early birds really want to be punctual. They just prefer to be right on time.

Wanting to avoid being early is a strong motivation for why many people are chronically late.

When you ask someone why they are perpetually late, they will often inform you that the typical or assumed reasons do not necessarily explain the underlying issue of their bad habit. Even when they try to be organized, consider the time of others, or set an alarm, they still tend to be late.

Additionally, they are usually behind by the same amount of time: five, 10, or 15 minutes -- just late enough where it isn't detrimental to their event but late enough to be annoying to those around them. Though desperately wanting to break the habit, the conflicting motivation to not be late or early poses a real problem. It is hard to reconcile these two competing ideals.

So why does this second group hate to be early?

Well, there are various reasons. Some of the most common include:

Because it's inefficient. Being early requires having to sit around with nothing to do. The waiting time is just short enough where you can't get into any other project because as soon as you do, the time is up.

Many hate the uneasiness of being early. They feel awkward and uncomfortable waiting. They might even feel as if others are watching and judging them, whether this being true or not. Arriving a few minutes early makes you feel proud and confident, but arriving too early can make you feel foolish. You fear others might be thinking that you have no life besides this one event. You don't want people to think that your time isn't valuable.

Take the example of going on a date. If you get there a little early that looks great, but if you get there too early, all of a sudden you're worried you might come across as desperate. You're so concerned about how being early makes you look that when your date actually arrives and asks you, "have you been waiting long?" what do you do? You lie and say, "Oh, not long, maybe 5 or 10 minutes."

There is also an opportunity cost associated with getting somewhere early. Just as someone else's time is valuable and you want to respect it to be punctual, so too your time is valuable and a lot of people would rather be using it productively than waiting around inefficiently.

Finally, sometimes you do not want to be early to be polite. In many cases, you don't want to disturb someone by getting there too soon (like a friend's dinner party), so you would rather get there a little late.

While many individuals see being early as a virtue, there are also many who don't. Earliness isn't valued to them. Earliness is a waste of time.

A 2002 article in USA Today discussed the cost of tardiness for CEOs. One hypothetical example mentioned in the article stated that if Sanford Weill, Citigroup CEO at the time, arrives 15 minutes late to a meeting where he is going to meet his four best-paid lieutenants, it costs the company $4,250, the price of the four employees' time." And that was in 2002 -- just think what it costs today.

Yet, the same argument can be applied to the cost of being early. If those four well-paid employees arrive 15 minutes before Weill arrives to the meeting, that still costs the company $4,250 in wasted time. The issue being that time is money in both scenarios.

Even latecomers know that it is impossible to get anywhere right on time each and every time. Since we cannot control external circumstances (like traffic, emergencies, other people, etc.), the only way to be prompt is to get to places a few minutes beforehand.

But we are still left with the pesky problem of motivation. How can an anti-early bird just bite the bullet and risk being early in order to be on time?

Often when you do get to a place early, there is no inherent reward in that. You think "(Bleep), I'm here too early. Next time I will give myself less time to get here."

The solution to actually fixing the habit, then, is not to think about ways to be on time but rather to think about how to make being early valuable.

That same USA Today article mentions how Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell gets to meetings a little beforehand and how he makes the best use of that time. As he says in the article, "I try to get to meetings a bit early so I can see what the mood of the team is and have an opportunity to interact informally before we get down to serious business."

Reframing that early time as something valuable makes you feel like your time is being used constructively (or that it's worth it), for your own or for someone else's benefit.

So, if you are trying to motivate someone else to stop being chronically late, remember, just because the sensible Benjamin Franklin espoused the virtues of being early and told us, "Early to bed, early to rise..." there are also those who agree with the wise Franklin D. Roosevelt's rationale: "I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm."

Adoree Durayappah-Harrison is a graduate of three masters programs, one in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania researching character strengths, goal achievement, and human flourishing; another from Harvard University studying Buddhist practices of the cultivation of both body and mind; and the third, an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University. She writes about health, psychology, and well being.