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Being Late

June 11, 2018

In wild country or in a boat and when using a map and compass for navigation (before GPS smart phones) there is the useful concept of aiming off. If you need to find the start of a path, or ford a river, or enter a channel to come into a harbor — that is, to find a precise physical point in the world — you need to account for the possibility of error in your navigation. Maps and compasses are pretty accurate but not perfect, and our application of these tools introduces human error. It is easy therefore, even in simple cases, to err on either side of a fixed point. It can be difficult, if you miss the point first time, to know which way you have gone: are you north or south of it for example, and how far? One may end up going a long way in the wrong direction looking for your goal.

So, to take the confusion and guess work out of things, you aim off a bit. If you are looking for a ford in a river, for example, you might deliberately aim a hundred yards east of it. The chances are, then, that when you hit the river bank you just have to walk west a bit until you find the ford. By introducing your own, small, systematic error, you have reduced the chance of a big random error.

Time is another thing that we measure precisely and often have to hit upon accurately to get things done. As with physical navigation, it is also possible to err on either side of an appointment time, being either early or late. Now everyone is a bit late for things now and again. Traffic, public transit, lost keys, and so on introduce random error and lateness for everybody. Some people, however, seem never to be able to be on time for things: they are chronically late.

In the other direction, some people are chronically early for things. They are usually afraid of being late. The movie starts at eight but they will always be there at seven thirty. Now although they may end up waiting around some, this kind of error rarely causes problems for other people. It is also somewhat clear that someone who is always early has brought this about by their own actions. Whether they sat down and thought about it or not, they are actively aiming off in order to be where they want to be on time.

Being chronically late, on the other hand, can seem like something that just happens to us: the trains are always bad; I can never get out of work on time; I can never get a cab; my elevator is always slow; I had to finish doing the dishes; I wasn’t feeling well; my mother called as I was heading out the door; and so on. Being late, unlike being early, however, generally ruffles some feathers. If you are meeting someone somewhere and you are late and they are on time, they will be kept waiting. Most people don’t like to be kept waiting, and so if you are usually late for them they will have thoughts about you. If you are not on time for meetings at work, your boss and coworkers will have thoughts about you. Such thoughts can sometimes develop into significant consequences.

Because being late isn’t very sociable, people tend to want to excuse themselves for their lateness. Being late now and again is excusable of course, but being chronically late is another story. It is, in fact, a story of aiming off. Although they might at first have trouble seeing it this way, most people who are chronically late are actually aiming to be late, for various reasons.

For example, I noted above that few people like to be kept waiting. For some, waiting is more than an irritation; it is almost unbearable. Getting somewhere early or even on time might mean that you have to wait for someone else, and if you cannot bear to be kept waiting then one way to avoid that unpleasant state is to ensure that the other person will get there first, so that you will never have to wait for them. This is unfair to those people you keep waiting, of course, and they might not want to go on being put in that position.

Many people will have had appointments or meetings that they would rather not attend, or fear attending for some reason. Sometimes one might simply skip a meeting or appointment all together. If that is not possible, and one cannot quite bring oneself to be there on time and there for the whole meeting, a compromise is often struck. Between being on time and skipping something altogether, there is being late. Such compromises can be struck with surprising accuracy and regularity, which reveals that an active aiming off process is in operation. Someone who is always 15 minutes late for a regular meeting is not subject to a random process of being late that is simply happening to them.

With such a premium in today’s world on getting a lot done and multi-tasking, it can be tempting to try to squeeze in just one more thing before leaving for work in the morning, though that thing ends up making you late. We sometimes want to stretch time, but find that it does not bend to our will. Eventually, we must bend ourselves to time. We may wish that it only takes 30 minutes to commute to work, but keep finding that we are usually 15 minutes late. Accepting the reality of the case — that it actually takes 45 minutes — can be surprisingly difficult. We want to keep time, to save it and hoard it, to have more of it than we can have. Ironically, we often do very little with the time we try to scoop up from the great river and are upset as it trickles through our fingers.

Another reason people may aim off and end up being chronically late is when trying to manage how important things feel to us. A kind of reasoning may be operating that goes something like this: Things I can be late for are not important; I’m late for this; therefore it’s not important. You don’t have to be a logician to see that here is something wrong here. Things, or people, that are important cannot be made unimportant by showing up late for them. One has to accept what has become important to us, even if that threatens some of our ideas. Those ideas are often unrealistic notions of independence, such that feeling dependent in any way — this is important to me, I need this — can threaten a magical sense of perfect independence.

Although being late can seem minor, trivial even, I have been impressed in my work with many people that being chronically late is in fact a serious problem. It bespeaks a basic difficulty with accommodating oneself to reality and the needs of others. To get along in the world requires constant adaptation to other people and things. Without steadying your temporal aim, getting along with others and moving forward in one’s life is going to be a very uphill battle. If you can practice aiming off in the other direction — aiming off early — it may help to offset one’s other tendencies. But given that aiming off late is an active process, you will eventually have to get a grip on why you need to introduce that systematic error into your relationship with time, before it is really too late.


Written By: Jason A. Wheeler, Ph.D.

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