This Is Why Some People Are Always Late (2023)

This Is Why Some People Are Always Late (1)

Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

You set your alarm on your phone. You vow (yet again) that you’ll leave home 5 minutes early. You set out everything you need the night before. And then, despite your best efforts and intentions, you show up 15 minutes late for your first morning appointment, meeting, or class.

Or perhaps you’re supposed to take your allergy medication twice per day, 12 hours apart. You invariably end up 2 or 3 hours late with one or both doses.

It all seems hopeless: You’re always late, you’ve always been late for everything, and you’ll never be able to get anywhere on time.

Or maybe it’s not you who’s always late for everything—maybe it’s your partner, your kids, or your co-worker. You would love to fix this chronic lateness, but given that it's gone on for so long, it seems unlikely that will happen.

But there's hope: New research on our internal clock suggests there are ways to break the pattern forever. There are, no doubt, plenty of motivation-based reasons for chronic lateness. Freudian psychologists may cite causes such as neurotic self-destructive tendencies or a flaw in your early developmental stages. Your personality might be to blame, particularly if you’re low on the trait of conscientiousness.

But what if your lateness had nothing to do with intent or your dispositional makeup? Could it be something as simple as a correctable cognitive defect?

According to a recent study by Washington University psychologists Emily Waldun and Mark McDaniel (2016), chronic lateness may originate, at least somewhat, in what’s called time-based prospective memory (TBPM). In the lab, researchers test TBPM by giving participants a certain amount of time to complete a task, requiring them to pace themselves so they actually get it done. Participants have the option of checking the clock before the available time runs out. You might think that everyone would take the option of checking the clock, but the experiments are set up so that it’s easy to forget to take advantage of this strategy because participants are occupied by their task.

The situation in TBPM experiments is analogous to what happens when you’re engrossed in one activity, such as catching up on your social media feed, at the same time that you’re also supposed to be getting ready to leave your home to be on time for work. You think only 5 minutes have passed when in fact you’ve let 20 minutes slip by.

People who are good at TBPM tasks seem better able to regulate their own clock-checking behavior, so they're less reliant on their potentially flawed internal timekeeper. However, there’s more to being on time than comparing your internal clock to the one the rest of the world uses. You also have to be able to gauge the amount of time it might take, say, for you to get from one place to another. As good as Google maps can be for determining an ETA, it can’t tell you whether you’ll have a random conversation with a friend you happen to meet along the way or whether you'll decide you can't go any further without a cup of coffee. A 10-minute walk can easily become a 30-minute walk if you get engrossed in a conversation with your friend or stuck with a slow barista. Your plan might be solid, but it can fail in the execution.

Waldun and McDaniel were interested in TBPM from the standpoint of people being late and also of people being early. You might be chronically early to appointments due to faulty planning or poor execution of your time-based strategy; if you're afraid of being late, you build in too much unnecessary travel time. Although being early won’t get you in as much trouble as being late, it still means that you’re wasting time that could be better spent in other ways, such as sleeping longer or enjoying a second cup of coffee.

The Washington University researchers also were curious to learn about age differences in TBPM. In their study, participants from younger and older adult age groups were asked to complete a somewhat complex lab task that was intended to mirror situations in everyday life in which you must keep tabs on yourself while doing one thing in order to get the next task finished on time.

In the first phase of the study, participants were given a set of trivia questions to answer and were told that after completing the task, they would be asked to estimate how long it took them. While completing the trivia task, participants heard either zero, two, or four pop songs playing in the background. The idea behind the music was that participants who heard more songs might overestimate the time it took them to finish, while those hearing fewer should underestimate the elapsed time. In the end, it took an average of 11 minutes for people to complete the task.

Motivation Essential Reads

3 Ways Hearing Songs You've Chosen Can Enhance Your Workouts

Motivational Intelligence: Behaviour’s Engine

During the second phase, participants were given a different task—putting together a jigsaw puzzle. They were told that they would, after getting as far as they could on the puzzle, be asked to complete the trivia quiz—for which they would have exactly 20 minutes. The goal was to finish the quiz by pushing “enter” at the 20-minute mark—no earlier and no later. In other words, they were to pace themselves during the puzzle task so they’d have the right amount of time to complete the quiz. The experiment had a game-like quality in that participants received points for answering the questions correctly, putting the puzzle together, and hitting the button once 20 minutes had elapsed.

From the findings, it was clear that some people are better time estimators than others. The music playing seemed to make a difference for the younger adults, but not for the older ones. Also, younger adults took advantage of clock-checking more than older adults.

The main culprit in people being too early or too late was their time estimation bias. To get yourself where you need to be at the right time, you need to keep your internal clock in tip-top shape. It helps to use environmental cues, especially if you think you’re not very good at estimating time. It may be a bit more taxing cognitively because, as the authors point out, “prospective time estimation is attentionally demanding” (p. 1059). However, the benefits outweigh the risks if being on time is your goal.

With this in mind, here are the three tips that the study suggests can help you reduce your own time estimation bias.

  1. Check the clock. There’s no need to try to tough it out by thinking you can time your tasks on your own. If you need to keep on track because of back-to-back appointments, classes, or meetings, keep a watch or clock in an easily visible place. Looking at your watch may feel rude but it’s less rude than being late and making someone wait for you. If you don't own a watch, it might be a worthwhile investment.
  2. Create a strategy for getting things done on time. One of the unexpected findings in the Waldun and McDaniel study was that some participants developed their own goals for making sure they left enough time for the trivia task. You might, for example, know that it generally takes you 10 minutes to wash your breakfast dishes. Use this as a guide to develop a “switch time” if your scrambled eggs stick to the pan more than you expected.
  3. Don’t fall prey to the temptation to do “one more thing” before you know you have to leave. The time estimation study pointed to the importance of “plan fidelity.” Decide ahead of time how long each phase of a task will take, whether it’s getting out the door on time or finishing up a project before you have to get to the next one.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Waldum, E. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2016). Why are you late? Investigating the role of time management in time-based prospective memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(8), 1049-1061. doi:10.1037/xge0000183


This Is Why Some People Are Always Late? ›

Personality also plays a role in running late. Certain personality traits, such as reduced conscientiousness, can cause some people to forget tasks that they had planned ahead of time, Waldum said. "Another factor that may influence a person's timeliness is how prone to multitasking they are," she added.

What do you say when someone is always late? ›

Let them know how their lateness makes you feel. Tell them that your time is valuable, but you often find yourself waiting around on them. Ask them if they can be on time in the future or let you know well in advance if they'll be late. Say “When you're late for these events, it's really frustrating for me.

What are the good things about people who are always late? ›

They're optimistic and hopeful: "People who are continuously late are actually just more optimistic. They believe they can fit more tasks into a limited amount of time more than other people and thrive when they're multitasking. Simply put, they're fundamentally hopeful."

Why are ADHD people always late? ›

It's not that they don't want to be on time, but their brains are wired differently, making it hard to estimate time and stick to a schedule. If you have ADHD, you may find yourself constantly running late. You might lose track of time when you're doing something you enjoy or get caught up in the moment.

How do you deal with someone who is always late for work? ›

7 Ways To Effectively Handle Chronically Late Employees
  1. Set expectations. Employee lateness is an inevitable part of being a business owner. ...
  2. Be proactive.
  3. Get to the root cause.
  4. Outline the consequences.
  5. Be patient.
  6. Reinforce with rewards.
  7. Use time tracking software.
Jun 29, 2022

Is it disrespectful to always be late? ›

In our productivity-obsessed world, tardiness is often a result of trying to do too many things at once. When we understand why we're always late, we can improve our own punctuality. And because tardiness doesn't necessarily signal a lack of respect, we can find ways to support our less-punctual friends and colleagues.

How do you stop someone from being late all the time? ›

12 tips to deal with an employee consistently late to work
  1. Address the situation early. ...
  2. Make your expectations clear. ...
  3. Refer to a tardy policy. ...
  4. Allow for privacy. ...
  5. Give praise for improved behavior. ...
  6. Document conversations and interactions. ...
  7. Initiate a clock-in system. ...
  8. Integrate punctuality into a performance review.
Mar 10, 2023

Is lateness a symptom of ADD? ›

Time management is a big problem for people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Everyone is late on occasion, but many with ADHD run behind schedule more often than not. They are late to meetings. They stand up their friends.

Do people with ADHD respond late? ›

ADHD children are more stimulus-bound than are same-age individuals. Viewed as such, their hyperactivity is but one side of the same coin as impulsivity, that being impaired delayed responding or disinhibition.

How do you fix ADHD lateness? ›

Use these tools to keep ADHD and running late from running your life.
  1. Make a Plan and Time Out Getting To Where You Need to Be. ...
  2. Budget Extra Time for Your Distractions. ...
  3. Set an Alarm or Two or Three. ...
  4. Remind Yourself, Then Remind Yourself Again. ...
  5. Don't Waste Time Looking for What You Know You Need.

What is the root cause of lateness? ›

There are several reasons why people are late. They could be disorganized, trying to make a power play, anxious, have poor social skills, or even have underlying medical issues. Stopping habitual lateness must start with identifying the real cause.

Why lateness is a problem? ›

By having the habit of being late, people will look at you as if you were inconsiderate. They may even think that you are late for everything. If this happens often, it can damage your reputation and affect your relationships with others.

What causes lateness to work? ›

Traffic, sleep schedules, and weather conditions are the top three. Being tired and forgetful round out the top five reasons for being tardy.

How do you talk to a friend who is always late? ›

Tell your friend that you feel disrespected by her lateness. Keep an open mind. Inquire about the reason(s) for the lateness. If your meetings are at a recurring time, ask her about scheduling at a later time, to account for traffic or tasks that may conflict with her departure time.

How do you say late in a nice way? ›

What you say when you arrive late
  1. I'm sorry, I'm running late.
  2. I apologize for being late.
  3. Please forgive me for being late.
  4. Thank you for understanding.
Nov 1, 2022

What is a fancy way of saying I'm late? ›

I'm behind schedule.

What is a chronic lateness? ›

Chronic tardiness is habitual lateness to make it to scheduled events. The keyword here is habitual. Being late occasionally happens to most people due to unforeseen circumstances; however, whenever an individual demonstrates behavior repetitively in a persistent manner over an extended period, it becomes chronic.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Tyson Zemlak

Last Updated: 16/10/2023

Views: 6416

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (43 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Tyson Zemlak

Birthday: 1992-03-17

Address: Apt. 662 96191 Quigley Dam, Kubview, MA 42013

Phone: +441678032891

Job: Community-Services Orchestrator

Hobby: Coffee roasting, Calligraphy, Metalworking, Fashion, Vehicle restoration, Shopping, Photography

Introduction: My name is Tyson Zemlak, I am a excited, light, sparkling, super, open, fair, magnificent person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.