When I was young, I was always late. I’ve spent half a lifetime working to develop punctuality and it seems to be improving.
Aggravating the problem was how I handled being late. The lesson I learned when I made the following change has led to a major reduction in my business stress.
When I was late, all I did was hurry more to try to be less late. Of course, people were always waiting, and once you’re late, being less late than you might have been really doesn’t help much. You know what does help?
A phone call.
If you’re late, make a phone call. “Sorry, I’m going to be three/five/fifteen minutes late. Your time is valuable, and I’m very sorry I didn’t plan better.” To date (20 years since I started the habit) the only reaction I ever remember is, “No problem; thanks for letting me know.” In fact, I get “No worries; I’m late as well” as often as not.
If you make a mistake (and lateness is a mistake), admit it as soon as you’re aware of it and do what you can to fix it. Clients, prospects, even suspects don’t expect perfection (if they do, you can’t work with them anyway.) They expect mistakes now and then. What they care about is how you deal with the mistake. Of course, they won’t excuse incompetence, but you might be surprised how much good will you get by being forthright.
Why We’re Like This
It’s almost impossible to avoid seeing a timepiece almost everywhere you look. Nearly every adult in some countries wears a wristwatch. Your cell phone’s display probably includes a readout of the time. Right down there in the corner of my computer screen is another. Driving down the street, even if you didn’t have another clock on the dashboard you’d hear the time announced on the radio at least once an hour.
We’re a society obsessed with timekeeping. So how on earth can anyone ever be late?
It’s pretty obviously not about time. Less obviously, maybe, is that it’s about manners.
Here’s my confession. When I was young, the reason I was always late was because I was arrogant and selfish.
My chronic lateness had two sources: I never really wanted to stop what I was already doing to get to what I was supposed to be doing, but worse, I honestly believed others weren’t as important as me. There I was, doing something really meaningful, and if we started the next thing 15 minutes late, I was sure they didn’t mind waiting.
It took years of unpleasant interaction and a major change in my self-image to decide that punctuality was a way of showing my consideration for others. Of course, first I had to have that consideration.
Those of us who are chronically late fall into a handful of personality types defined by psychologists, but the short version is that if we’re chronically late, we don’t respect others; we don’t think they’re as important as we are. Dale Carnegie is not impressed, and neither are those you do business with.
When others realize that you don’t value their time it’s a short step to thinking you don’t value them—and an even shorter step to them not valuing you.
If you know you have a problem with punctuality, treat it like any other gap you might discover in your professional abilities, and patch it. If you can read a book and get the concepts, check your local library or search the internet for resources. If you’re the type who can enlist the aid of friends to make the change, do it. If you’ve tried before and can’t seem to overcome the lateness habit, consider finding a life skills coach to help you sort out causes and solutions.
And for those of you who are glad I’m not talking to you right now, try one of these experiments:
- keep a log of your punctuality for a week or so; prove it to yourself in writing
- ask a trusted friend or business associate if you have a reputation for punctuality
Hopefully, you won’t find any surprises. If you do, come back and read this again; it’s more meaningful once your eyes are open.
(Excerpted from my first book, The Commonsense Entrepreneur)