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Growth Strategies

Time Management Tips: What to Do If You Are Always Late

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
9 min read

This story appears in the February 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Key Technical Matters
Key Technical Matters
The gap between on time and late is very narrow.

T plus five minutes is not yet late.

T plus six minutes is extremely late.

T plus 10 minutes is a total disaster.

Tea plus honey is good for a sore throat.

When walking in late to a meeting: Do not offer an excuse. Seem sheepish for exactly two seconds, then abandon all shame.

If the meeting room is full, stand with your back against the wall just inside the doorway. No slithering.

If there are beverages available, do not avail yourself.

If there are flogging instruments available, do not avail yourself.

Do not speak for the first 10 minutes of the meeting. Late people have a way of covering ground that has already been covered.

At the end of the meeting, seek out the most important person in the room and apologize.

Unless you are the most important person in the room.

In which case, why have you been standing at the back of the room all this time?

In business, time management is never about managing time. Time is a known and stable factor. It can't be managed; it can only be acknowledged or ignored, according to how much you appreciate its importance.

If you're late for a meeting, it's probably not because some unavoidable obstacle put itself in your way. It's because you didn't allow for the obstacle. You didn't spend time thinking about the obstacle. And if you didn't spend time thinking about the obstacle, you're not showing respect for the people you're doing business with. In other words, you are the obstacle. Because being on time is easy. Respecting time is the tricky part.

There are many opportunities to be late or on time, but for the purposes of this column, let's stick with the most useful example: the meeting.

How to Be On Time
For the first time ever, we are about to reveal how to be on time for a meeting. Countless studies by scientists, the military, various government agencies and the guy who invented Clocky, "the alarm clock that runs away," have all come together to prove that the way to be on time for a meeting is as follows: Be on time for the meeting.

There is no skill. There is nothing to learn. If you want to be on time, you'll be on time. People who are consistently late make lots of excuses: traffic, children, illness, subway trouble (No. 1 most common excuse in the Esquire offices), inclement weather, "they took a long time with my Caffe Misto," etc. But those excuses are representative of one thing: an ambivalence about what you're supposed to be on time for. Whatever the meeting is about, it's just not important enough.

"It cracks me up when people say it's a time-management issue when people don't show up on time," says Steve McClatchy, time-management expert and founder of Malvern, Pa.-based Alleer Training & Consulting. "If I told you that I have a million dollars for you if you can make an 8 o'clock meeting tomorrow morning, but if you're a minute late you don't get the million dollars, there's not a person in the world who would turn it down."

Tardiness reaction Meter

It's easy money because being on time is not hard. After all, we're on time all the time. We tend to eat on time. We press the gas when the light is green. We say hello immediately after someone else says hi. So when we decide not to be on time (and it is always a decision) the message isn't, I'm too busy. The message is, I don't respect this meeting enough--I don't respect the people waiting for me in the meeting room enough--to do the easiest thing in the world: just show up.

Is it a lifestyle thing? "One of the things people love about being an entrepreneur is: ‘Hey, I don't have to punch a clock,'" says Angela Benton, founder and CEO of NewMe Accelerator, a San Francisco incubator for underrepresented minorities in the tech industry. "But the fact is that most people do business from 9 to 5. So you have to put some kind of schedule in place for yourself and put some level of structure in so that you're not late for things."

Being late is about little decisions you make on the way to being late. It's never about the moment in time when you're scheduled to meet. It's about days of preparation. Months, even. In some ways, years. Because an inability to keep an appointment is about something much larger than the hour at hand. If you're struggling with being on time, imagine that your meeting is a lot more important than it actually is. Imagine that your being late would scuttle the whole thing. Imagine the meeting is--oh, I don't know--a rocket launch.

Here's what Tim Dunn, launch director for the Launch Services Program at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida says about all those little decisions: "The general public tends to think in terms of launch countdown, which is all the excitement on launch day. But the launch campaign is the greater effort of everything that goes into leading up to launch day. When people are late for those meetings it detracts from the overall progress toward our launch date/countdown."

You are NASA. The meeting is your rocket. Launch the rocket on time.

What Lateness Tells You
One way of looking at lateness is to consider the price you're paying for being late. And there's always a price to pay. Says McClatchy: "If you are just a little late, a sincere apology typically remedies the issue. If being late is a chronic problem, then it communicates that you don't care. This can show up in many different ways in business."

People might smile and say, "Oh, that's OK." But the price has been paid. Morale is lower. You're trusted less. They're frustrated. And they're going to take out that frustration in ways you can't quantify. The whole basis of business is trust. A meeting time is a commitment, and when that commitment isn't honored, bad things happen.

Let's turn the tables and look at timeliness from the perspective of those who show up early and end up waiting on the not-so-timely. Think about what they've learned. They've learned the score. They've learned where they stand with the person who is not on time. They now know that the tardy person respects the situation less than they do. They know that they are more on top of the schedule than the tardy person is. Which is extremely useful. Especially if they're considering going into business with that person.

When you're not on time, you have said one thing and done another. Your words do not jibe with your actions. It's a cardinal sin, especially for a manager. Each time you do what you say, each time you're on time, trust is maintained and bonds are strengthened. You are a hero. You have launched the rocket.

Now, while we're waiting, care for some coffee?

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