Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Art of Punctuality

There’s being late and then there’s being late.

Some people are chronically tardy. They are late for meetings; they are late for appointments; they are late for dinner.

Others do not hand in reports on time. They do not finish the presentation in time. They even get to work late.

Those of us who are chronically punctual do not quite understand it. It’s not that difficult to get to dinner on time. But, it seems that something always comes up, something that is so momentous and so prepossessing that one is forced to be late.

Being late shows how important you are.

Of course, being late with your work assignments or for your appointments brings consequences.

Being late has a price. You will be alienate your friends and disrespect your coworkers.

Sumathi Reddy explains in the Wall Street Journal:

This kind of behavior can slow down workplace efficiency and drive longtime friends to distraction while they wait for a late arrival. 

The more you are late the more you will compromise your ability to do your job. And you will be undermining everyone else’s job. You will be lobbying against your next promotion or raise. If there is justice in the world, you will find yourself with fewer and fewer longtime friends.

And yet, whatever the cost of tardiness, if you still have a job and still have longtime friends, perhaps it is not high enough.

Social psychologists have set out to study the problem, even to find new ways to solve it. For now, the results are not very encouraging.

Some people, Reddy reports, are chronically late because they cannot assess how much time it will take to complete a task.

If you often hand in your work late, you will perhaps have underestimated the time it will take to complete the job. You might also have not considered the possibility that your work time will be interrupted by other pressing concerns

It’s called a dance with a deadline. If you promise your work on Tuesday morning because you are persuaded that you will be done by Tuesday morning, you ought to keep your word.

But some people do not think it is very important to keep their word. And they have such busy lives that they simply do not have the time to do everything.

What is now called work/life balance is not on very good terms with punctuality.

The same applies to showing up on time for an appointment, a date or a meeting. If you do not know how to estimate how long it will take to complete a task you will not know when you will be able to show up. But also, if you do not understand the importance of being on time you will more easily allow yourself to be distracted.

Psychologists have devised a number of exercises that assist people in being on time. And yet, how many people are willing to perform the exercises?

Some people do not really care about being on time. They do not care about handing in reports on time. And they do not care about how they look to the people they are disappointing. Perhaps therapy taught them not to care about how they look to others.

Why might  people be chronically late?

First, they do not estimate how much time it will take them to complete a task. They know how much time their manager will expect them to need to complete the task.

When estimating the time it takes, ask yourself whether you are evaluating your own abilities or are trying to do what someone else expects? An objective appraisal, performed by stepping out of  yourself, will be valuable here.

Second, it is altogether possible that you have, over the years, gotten away with being late. Perhaps your work is so good that your managers swallow their irritation when faced by such a dazzling work product.

They think it’s worth the price. This will work until it doesn't. Those who are excusing your tardiness are not doing you any favors.

Third, as a corollary to the second, being late might be an assertion of self-importance. People believe that not showing up means that are very busy. They also believe that when they show up late they are showing their friends and colleagues how much their time is in demand, how vital their presence is in other places.

Fourth, many people do not believe, as an article of secular faith, that punctuality matters. They prefer the drama produced by tardiness to the harmony produced by punctuality.

Here, it’s a question of cultural values.

We pay lip service to the value of punctuality, but we also—at least, many of us do—believe that work is a soul-deadening process that we are forced to perform. Any opportunity to indulge even a minor distraction counts as a mini-rebellion against the corporate machine and against social mores.

In a culture where one’s sacred individuality is seen as at war with cultural restraints, being late might count as a healthy gesture.

If everyone shows up on time for the meeting, then the meeting can focus on the agenda. If one person’s lateness delays the meeting, then the meeting is first about what is wrong with that person or what happened to that person.

Being late makes you the object of everyone’s imagination. Maybe it's better to have everyone worry about you.

Our individualized culture often condemns conformity as a vice. Why should people conform to something as mechanical as a clock?

People believe that the truth lies in psychodrama and that the higher truth lies in their ability to rejected society’s strictures in favor of soulful self-expression. They make it a point of pride not to conform to the schedules of other people. They believe it demeaning to obey the numbers on a clock face. One suspects that they suffer from a reactionary yearning for a time before there were clocks.


Ares Olympus said...

re: But some people do not think it is very important to keep their word. And they have such busy lives that they simply do not have the time to do everything.

Rationalizations are good for the conscience, and no one is perfect, but as you show chronic failure is different.

I'm still trying to understand how the conscience works and how it doesn't work. I do have some "new age" friends who have taken up the idea that all negative emotions should be avoided, and guilt and shame stand high.

One idea I have over transgressions like tardiness is acknowledgement, so if I'm late occassionally, I can simply apologize, and recognize my error, and the harm caused, and even if people pretend it didn't matter, I won't believe them, because if I do, that will encourage me to not worry about being late the next time.

So guilt seems like an efficient emotion, and the quick public acknowledgement of a transgression brings a feeling of humility and my memory has been reinfored that I can do better with proper planning. So at this level, I don't know why new agers would object.

Its like that old movie before my time "Love story" whith the line "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

And even if we say that's wrong, there would seem to be some "saturation" level for apologies. A neurotic person with a high level of guilt might feel the impulse to apologize for hundreds of smallest things every day, and meanwhile no one else even notice a transgression. So that shows you need some differentiation between your own standards and imagined standards of others, since you most often will never know what other people are really thinking.

I think the standard soft rebuke is the fatherly "I'm disappointed in you...." and that certainly creates a clear opportunity to express remorse and a desire to do better.

re: We pay lip service to the value of punctuality, but we also—at least, many of us do—believe that work is a soul-deadening process that we are forced to perform. Any opportunity to indulge even a minor distraction counts as a mini-rebellion against the corporate machine and against social mores.

It's funny on the surface, I reject that categorization, but something is definitely there, some resentment, but what is the nature of the resentment?

That is, maybe there are two categories of "agreements", those which are negociable and those that are not. If a meeting is set up at 9am and you don't really want to go, and don't feel you have the right to decline, then being 5 minutes late might be partially intentional, or at least in an apathetic sort of way.

But if you really want to meet up with someone, and they suggest 9am, and you say 11am would be better, and you eventually agree on 10:30am works for both of you, then your act of negotiation and a compromise that accommodated your needs means a more active sense of responsibility.

So I can see in an "honest" world, people would say what they mean, and do what they promised, and all might be well. But in a world where you have to do things that you don't want to do, and can convince yourself someone else has the power, and you just have to comform, it seems easy to rationalize disrespectful behavior like being late.

So as long as you refuse to openly negotiate on agreements, ask for what you want, you can blame others for your bad behavior, and apparently your conscience is disarmed in the rationalizations.

Dennis said...

Punctuality is the ultimate gesture of respect for those one works. It states that I value your time and effort to be part of the team.
It is also a recognition of one's own personal responsibility. It should not matter how one feels about the job and is more about what ones feels about themselves.
I suspect much of this comes from the fact that we have lost respect for those attributes that value other people over self. Being an individual does not lessen the necessity of working towards the betterment of one's society, team mates, country, et al. Failure to honor, what a quaint word for this current society, those who are our work mates, troops, et al is to degrade oneself and may keep an important action from being taken in a timely manner and cause grievous harm.
Punctuality or the failure thereof defines one as a responsible person who has the best interests of any endeavor they are involved. One of the many common human values that have been lost in a society filled with "selfies."

Sam L. said...

Start all meetings on time. Inform the latecomers of decisions made before their arrival as "too bad you missed the votes" and "we selected you to do XYZ, report your progress at the next meeting".

Texan99 said...

I think it's also a way of saying "yes" and acting "no." Someone is not quite gutsy enough to decline the assignment or invitation, but he's sending the message "You can't make me follow through."

Anonymous said...

Two other important kinds of lateness:

1. Transit uncertainty combined with unilateral scheduling: Events scheduled at great distance and non-negotiable times introduce large discrepancies in travel times. The 9 times one is 45 minutes early are irrelevant when the focus is on the single time one is 10 minutes late. People are expecting one another to waste many hours to save a few minutes.

Great distances are not always necessary, I know a 6 mile stretch of highway featuring a bridge which can take anywhere from 5 minutes to many hours to transit... it is impossible to know -- especially weeks ahead of time -- how that will work out. I think the only real solution to this is to turn down these engagements entirely but it is not always possible. I suppose second best is notification -- nearly everyone has a cell phone now.

2. Cascading events: One may be on time for the first meeting, but by the time it has run an hour over schedule one is late for the next one.

There's also an expectation dynamic. I know of events for which I always show up late intentionally, because if I'm on time I'll be the only one there. Everyone involved knows that 9:30 actually means the coordinator and a quorum won't show up until 10.


Anonymous said...

Your title is misleading. I clicked on the link thinking I would find tips on how to be more punctual.