How to Be On Time Every Time

In my last post, I talked about why being punctual matters. The short version: people who are habitually late (or are late even once, when it counts) project incompetence, self-centeredness, and even a lack of integrity.

In the comments, lapka asked if there were any tricks for people who have a hard time showing up on time, and through a little bit of research and a little bit of self-examination, I think I have some answers.

First of all, though, it’s important to see being on time as part of your whole attitude towards time. You’re never going to be on time, every time — whether for appointments, meeting big deadlines, or even to catch a movie — if you haven’t put into practice a set of good time management techniques.

That means, for example, having a central place where your time commitments are recorded, whether that’s an online calendar, Outlook, a smartphone, a dayplanner, or just an index card with your schedule on it.  It seems obvious that to be on time you have to know where you have to be and when, but it’s a step a lot of people try to skip — they want to hold everything in their heads.

Secondly, being punctual requires a bit of an attitude adjustment. A lot of the time we let ourselves show up late because the event we’re showing up to isn’t all that important to us. Try this: don’t schedule events that aren’t that important to you. Use that time for things that are important to you. I know, there are a lot of things in your life that feel obligatory, like the weekly status report meeting at work, or dinner at your spouse’s or partner’s parents; either make those things important to you, or figure out how to cut them from your calendar.

Ok, with general principles out of the way, let’s move on to the tricks.

10 ways to make yourself more punctual

  1. Don’t check your email or voicemail right before you leave. That “last quick check” will almost always take more time than you think — which is, after all, what you’re hoping for. If you thought there’d be nothing important in your email, you wouldn’t bother checking.
  2. Plan for trouble. Always add 25% to your time estimate to get anywhere or do any task. If you think it takes 30 minutes to get to work, give yourself 40 (technically, 37 1/2, but let’s not be ridiculous here!). If you need 12 working hours to finish a proposal, give yourself 15. The worst thing that could happen is that you get a nice “Scotty effect” going, where you’re always ahead of schedule and everyone thinks you’re a miracle worker.
  3. Set up the night before. If you are, like me, someone who has a hard time getting going in the morning, make sure you set up the night before. Lay out your clothes, put your keys, wallet, etc. in tomorrow’s pants pockets or your purse, load up your bag with whatever material you’ll need  in the morning, put your lunch together, and so on. In the morning, wake up, get dressed, grab your stuff, and go.
  4. Set your clocks ahead a few minutes each — by different amounts. My alarm clock is 5 minutes fast, my watch only 1, my car clock 3. I think. Since I can’t be sure, I have to take each clock at face value. You might have a look at the Procrastinator’s Clock which is some random amount of time ahead, up to 15 minutes. It’s available for Mac and PC — I wonder if there’s a bedside version?
  5. Learn to better estimate how much time things take. Use a time tracker app like RescueTime to learn how long typical tasks take you to complete. Record these times, and refer to your record when estimating the time needed for similar tasks.
  6. Schedule events 10 minutes early. Put your 1:00 appointment into your schedule at 12:50, for example. But always have 10 minutes of work with you to fill the slack time, in case you surprise yourself by showing up “on time” 10 minutes early!
  7. Set reminders. Use your calendar program’s built-in reminder function, or use a service like Sandy to send you text reminders at set intervals before each appointment. I like a reminder at least an hour beforehand, so I can plan, and another 15 minutes prior so I know where I stand.
  8. Schedule events for “off-peak” times. Last year, I had a weekly meeting at 8 am. A trip that takes me 30 minutes any time after 9:00 am took me 1 1/2 hours due to rush hour traffic. Guess how many times I was late? Learn the times that traffic or other factors might make you late, and avoid scheduling during those times. For instance, give yourself at least an hour to get settled in every morning before your first meeting (so if you’re late to work, you won’t also be late for a meeting), don’t schedule meetings immediately after lunch (in case you get held up), avoid before-working-hours events (due to rush hour traffic), etc.
  9. Fill your gas tank when it reaches 1/4 tank. Don’t let an empty gas tank make you late for anything. Fill up whenever you reach 1/4 and you’ll never have to make an emergency stop at a gas station during your commute. (Plus, I’m told it’s better for your engine — whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.)
  10. Use a countdown timer. Grab a cheap digital timer, and use it to create a sense of urgency, and to help you keep on track at each step you need to complete to make it wherever you’re supposed to be on time. Break your preparation down into 10 minutes parts, set the timer, and GO!

What other advice do our readers have for people who just can’t figure out how to be more punctual? Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments.

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