01/28/2015 08:17 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

6 Tips to Never Be Late Again

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We all have a horror story about being late -- arriving at a wedding just as the bride and groom are running off in a shower of birdseed or picking up your panicked child at an otherwise empty field after baseball practice. Being late even shows up in our nightmares -- who hasn't woken up in a sweat from a late-for-a-final-exam dream?

You're not alone. So before you're late for your next very important date, consider these six tips for being right on time:

Tip #1: Account for transition activities, like traffic, getting kids out of the house ("You have to poop now?"), and the big one-two punch, parking and walking. These are the mundane tasks that stealthily (and consistently) throw off our estimates. Too often we look up the drive time on Google Maps and take the estimate as gold. Instead, consider bookending that estimate with extra time to find your kid's other shoe and feed the parking meter. It seems obvious, but it's not. Try it and and watch your life change.

Tip #2: Beware "I'll just do everything else faster." We might be tempted to press the snooze alarm or squeeze in one last task, rationalizing we'll just speed up the rest of our morning or our workday. But it never works; all it does is make us frantic (and, of course, late). So get up on time. This might require a major shift of evening habits to allow you to go to bed earlier, but that's another podcast in and of itself. Regardless, don't try to compensate by doing everything else in fast forward.

Tip #3: Rethink your semantics. Instead of thinking "We have be at the recital at 5:00," think "The curtain goes up at 5:00." There's a big difference between being in your seat, program in hand, versus having technically arrived, but still cruising around looking for parking at the appointed hour.

So change your wording: "I need to be in the restaurant at 7:30," "The meeting begins at 2:00," or "I have an hour to finish this, and drive there, and park."

Tip #4: Aim for 10 minutes early, if only to increase your margin of error. Here, punctuality is boiled down to a math problem. Think of it this way: aiming to arrive precisely on time gives you basically a one-minute window of arrival. If your event starts at noon, you aim to arrive at noon, and you arrive even at 12:01, you're late. The margin of error is too small. Stress is guaranteed. Instead, if your event starts at noon and you aim to get there at 11:50, you have a 10-minute window of arrival. Much more realistic and much less likely to make you swear at red lights.

Tip #5: Get into the habit of thinking ahead. Most tips you'll find here (or elsewhere online) are based on the premise that we think ahead about our tasks. For example, do X early, estimate Y more accurately. But most of us are late precisely because we forget to think ahead. We look up the appointment's address at the last minute and realize it's farther away than we thought. Or we forget that our reservations are at the height of rush hour.

Thinking ahead gets into more overarching organization and time-management skills. But the biggest bang for your buck can come from this: In addition to packing those kid lunches, consider thinking over the next day the night before. (Or for true punctuality ninjas, look at the upcoming week on Sunday night.) Where do you have to be and when? Are there new addresses to map out online? Are there any really important events, like an interview, a wedding, or a kid performance or game? Anything scheduled back-to-back-to-back? Pinpoint the weak spots and plan (or reschedule) accordingly.

Tip #6: Try it once and see. If you're chronically late, pick one upcoming event for which you'll be on time. Then do it up right: plan ahead, account for all transitions, leave early, and aim to be the first one there.

Then, observe the process of everyone else's arrival. Notice how you feel calm instead of frantic, that you don't have to feel guilty, and most importantly, notice how you feel when others arrive late.

There's a French saying, which translates loosely to, "While you keep a man waiting, he reflects on your shortcomings." I might add, "even if you've texted that you're running late." Putting yourself in the shoes of those you've kept waiting is a powerful motivator to change for the better. You'll come off as more professional, more respectful, and more competent. Not to mention more relaxed.

Call it prompt, punctilious, or just plain old on time. There's no zealot like the newly converted; try it out a few times. You'll love moving from being put on the spot to getting there on the dot.

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