How to Be on Time: 10 Tips for Better Punctuality

You may live by the saying, “Better never than late,” or you may follow, “Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.”  Any way you slice it, being on time is a struggle for many of us.  Here are Savvy Psychologist's 10 tips to be on time, every time.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #52

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?  

Savvy Psychologist listener Joaquin Garzaro of Guatemala City emailed me to ask about my tips for improving his punctuality. I know he's not alone. So before you’re late for your next very important date, consider these 10 tips for being right on time:.

Tip #1: Re-estimate How Long Things Will Take

Call it sunny optimism or delusional thinking, but many of us under-estimate how long tasks will take.  So try taking your original estimate and adding at least 25-50% more time.  

The bigger the task or the longer the travel time, the more wiggle room you have to build in.  For example, I found out the hard way that writing a grant takes anywhere from 3 to 8 times as long as I originally planned.  Estimate your own tasks - small or gargantuan - accordingly.

Tip #2: Account for Transition Activities

Traffic, getting kids out of the house (“You have to poop now?”), and the big one-two punch of parking and walking can derail your schedule and make you late. 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 watch your life change.

Tip #3: Beware the “One More Thing”

This also falls under the optimism umbrella, but deserves it’s own tip.  Oftentimes we’ll try to squeeze in one more thing - get gas, check email, buy paper towels - which inevitably makes us late.  

A college friend once said he had to do “just one thing” before a road trip.  I envisioned a stop at the ATM or mailbox, but then he proceeded to replace his car's exhaust system.  By himself.  With an acetylene torch from the art department.  

Even though we know better, we think that last errand will magically take no time at all.  So make like Jacques the Shrimp in Finding Nemo and tell yourself “I shall resist.”

Tip #4: Beware the “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 #5: Rethink Your Semantics

Instead of thinking “We have be at the recital at 5pm,” think “The curtain goes up at 5pm.”  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,” or “I have an hour to finish this, and drive there, and park.”

Tip #6: Being Early Is Not a Waste of Time

Most of us hate wasting time.  When we’re kept waiting, like in a doctor’s waiting room or a restaurant where we have a reservation, we get annoyed and restless.  So we assume that deliberately getting somewhere early will feel the same way.  Not necessarily!  When you’re deliberately early, you’re in charge, so you get to fill the time however you want.

A tip I often hear is to keep something productive on hand to fill in those empty few minutes: write a thank you note, catch up on work email on your smartphone, read news highlights.  If it works for you, great.  But also consider using the time for something pleasant, not just productive: look through photos on your phone, read a (heaven forbid) book, or strike up a conversation with other early birds.

(Bonus: at a business event, casual conversation beforehand builds relationships, which qualifies as super productive).


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.