Are you constantly running late? Strategies for making appointments on time.

You know the annoying feeling of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for minutes on end, doing nothing while the doctor is running late? It can be aggravating. Oncologist Dr. James Salwitz recently published an article expressing a doctor’s perspective on this trial on our patience. He wrote about a normal busy day at his office — or what was a normal day, until this happened:

The 1:30, 1:45, 2:00 patients all arrived at 2:15 and suddenly I was looking at an afternoon that would run deeply into eve. I really hate it when patients are late. …

As an oncologist, I detest running late, because it means leaving people with cancer on their minds, stewing in my waiting room. Personally, I worry when I am waiting at the dentist for a cleaning. What goes on in the mind of someone waiting to see me?

This got me thinking about how much grief we can cause for ourselves and others when we find ourselves running late. Usually we just inconvenience people, but sometimes the implications are more serious. Laurie Perry shares a story about the woman who hit her Jeep:

After the crash she sat in her car, writing out her phone number for me, saying, “I was late for work.” I remember looking at her with absolute disbelief, thinking You almost killed me because you were late for work?

That line keeps coming back to me at the oddest times. I’ll see someone blow through a red light and hear that lady saying, I was late for work. And then I think, I hope they don’t kill someone just because they couldn’t bother to leave on time for work today.

What causes us to run late? Some people fall prey to underestimating the time it will take to get somewhere. That’s not my personal weakness. I’m what Penelope Trunk calls a “time pessimist”; I assume things are going to take longer than my first estimate. I’ve learned that Google Maps gives me an optimistic driving time. And I live in an area with minimal public transit and winding two-lane roads, where any traffic snarls lead to major delays — so I’ve learned to pad many minutes into my driving times.

Some people are hooked on the adrenaline rush of cutting things close. In her book It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, Marilyn Paul notes that “there is a thrill in running late, postponing something to the last minute, or meeting a deadline by minutes. If you’re in your car, rushing to an appointment, you experience the exhilaration of trying to get through each traffic light.” She goes on to explain that there are better ways to get your adrenaline rush. But I don’t get a thrill from cutting things close — quite the opposite. I’m one of those people who is nervous enough about missing a plane that I arrive at airports ridiculously early.

I’m also not someone who tends to get held up because I’ve misplaced something. My house keys go on a hook by the front door. My Prius car keys and my wallet stay in my purse. I’ve got a tote bag that has everything I need for a certain weekly meeting. Sure, I will sometimes misplace something and have to scramble, but it’s a rare event.

Rather, when I’ve found myself leaving home later than I intended, it’s usually due to what Kathleen Nadeau calls one-more-thing-itis. I send one more email. I do one more seemingly tiny task. Then I hope there’s no traffic jam, because I’ve eaten up all my carefully planned buffer time. And I promise myself I’m never doing this to myself again.

But for many people, it’s difficult to develop the habits needed to arrive on time. For anyone who is chronically late and concerned about that, but is finding it hard to change, I’d recommend Never Be Late Again, by Diana DeLonzer, which presents “seven cures for the punctually challenged.” It’s a book filled with both humor and wisdom, from an author who has overcome this challenge herself.

Additional help: Hang something as simple as a removable utility hook near your front door or inside your coat closet to hold your keys every time you come into your home. Set alarms on your smart phone, watch, or Time Timer to remind you to get out the door when you need to. Time yourself doing regular morning activities (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking your dog around the neighborhood, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.) to see how long it really takes you to do these activities. As humans, we often underestimate how long things take us to do, and having a real sense of the time it takes you to get ready can help you plan your day better so you can get places on time.

25 Comments for “Are you constantly running late? Strategies for making appointments on time.”

  1. posted by Jessica on

    Although, I totally agree that being late for work is no excuse to be reckless, where I live in Northern Virginia near D.C., one can’t make the assumption that your late to work because of a lack of time management. The only thing that is predictable about the traffic here is that it will be bad, you just don’t know how bad. Many people have mega commutes here (2-2 1/2 hours one way), and the time is generally not in distance. And it gets worse every year.

    I imagine that most of the rest of the country is not like the D.C. metro area, at least I hope so.

  2. posted by Pat on

    I am almost always early, except for work. Everyday I arrive 10-20 minutes late. I get up at 5:30am every day and I don’t have to be in until 8am. My commute is 30 minutes-it doesn’t vary more than 5 minutes even with traffic issues. But for some reason I feel the need to clean my house and do a load of laundry and do all the dishes every morning etc. And I won’t leave home until its done. I do this before we leave on a trip too. I’m glad other people have issues like me-I just thought I was crazy.

  3. posted by JayEff on

    Well said.

    My wife and are punctual people. In this enabling, coddling culture, one downside of being punctual is that, for certain events, you have to wait for everybody else to arrive/finish preparing/etc.

    My wife and daughter attended the birthday party of one of my daughter’s classmates. The invitation said that the party was to start at 4 p.m. My wife and daughter and several other kids and parents arrived at 4. They were shuttled into the basement, where they were ignored for ONE HOUR, until the birthday girl made her appearance and the party began.

    My 9-year-old son and I attended a conference for kids. We were assigned to a group with a “leader” who knew the campus and where all the events were. After one of the lectures, we were supposed to go to a free lunch. Some people in our group were dilly-dallying, and our leader, who kept telling these slowpokes to come along, waited for them. My son asked why we could not go to lunch. The leader said that it would be unfair to leave without these slowpokes. My son said that it was unfair to make the rest of us wait for them. I was proud of my son.

  4. posted by infmom on

    After spending a lifetime with a mother who was always late, my take on it is that there are a lot of people out there who just don’t give a crap about being on time. They wouldn’t read a self-help book because they don’t have a problem. Or, as with my mother, if they’re late it’s always someone else’s fault.

    These people should not be accommodated. Leave without them. Tell them if they’re more than five minutes late for a doctor’s appointment, the appointment will automatically be rescheduled and they’ll just have to turn around and go home–unless they can provide incontrovertible proof of some major traffic snarl on their route that delayed them.

    Those measures won’t get through to a lot of the “I don’t care” latecomers, unfortunately, but at least their behavior won’t make everyone else around them late as well.

  5. posted by Lee on

    After 15 years of a friend being late (anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour) for every single plan we ever made, I finally “broke up” with her. She’s not married and doesn’t have kids, so she’s not trying to deal with others’ schedules; and she doesn’t work as an ER doctor or paramedic, so she’s not out there saving lives.

    I repeatedly asked her to be more considerate of my time, and explained how her chronic tardiness affected me and others, but I finally had to accept that at 45+, she wasn’t going to change, and that the only person she really cared about was herself. Her constantly running late, even though she’d call to say she’d be running late, was really just one of the symptomatic expressions of her self-centeredness.

    I miss some of the fun we’d eventually get around to having, but now I have more time to share with people who reciprocate the caring!

  6. posted by Dorothy on

    “You know the annoying feeling of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for minutes on end, doing nothing while the doctor is running late?”

    No, I don’t. Because I never, ever leave my house without my Kindle or other reading material. I’ve turned waiting rooms into pleasant breaks in my day. It’s one of those “accept the things you can’t change” choices that makes my life much more pleasant.

  7. posted by lullaby on

    From a cultural perspective, it’s interesting for me that a patient would be 45 minutes late at a doctor’s appointment and would still expect to be seen.

    When I have an important appointment I make sure to arrive plenty of time in advance even if it means waiting for 20+ minutes. If I were more than 10 minutes late then I would expect to have “missed my turn” and to have to reschedule the appointment (unless of course the medical assistant informs me the doctor is running late and that I can still come by).

    Now I should add as a disclaimer that I am Swiss (born and raised)!

  8. posted by Charlotte on

    I’ve struggled with being late all my life. I hate that I am, I work hard not to be, but I still am late a lot. I recently learned that this is a symptom of the ADD I just learned I have; I don’t judge time correctly. It explains a lot. But knowing why it’s such a struggle doesn’t magically make it disappear. And wanting to change it doesn’t fix it, or I would’ve fixed it 30 years ago. I’ve read plenty of (not really helpful) self-help books looking for a solution, and had friends treat me the way some of the commenters suggest. Paring down every routine and giving myself *twice* the time I think I need to get ready has helped a great deal. But there is still a lot of room for improvement.

  9. posted by Sue on

    Lullaby: “… it’s interesting for me that a patient would be 45 minutes late at a doctor’s appointment and would still expect to be seen…”

    Amen! Unless they’d been held up at a previous appointment–blood draw, MRI or something that went way over, I think the courteous would have called and rescheduled.

    I used to carpool to out-of-town meetings with a chronic Jenny-come-lately. It took two times of walking in as the meeting was starting, and I told her the next time, I was leaving at the stated time with or without her. You’ve probably guessed–it was without her. It was a delight to be able to stop for a breakfast and bathroom break, arrive at the meeting with time to network and settle in. (She was absolutely flabbergasted that I REALLY left without her!)

  10. posted by Bobbin on

    “My Prius car keys …” Are they significantly different from / harder to keep track of than regular car keys, or was this just a product placement ad?

  11. posted by Alice on

    Bobbin, thanks for saying what I was thinking! I clicked through to the comments just to see if anyone was discussing the weird Prius reference.

  12. posted by Erica on

    I’m often late, and so are others in my life. I don’t expect to be seen, though, if I get to the doctor late, and I don’t expect others to wait for me. There are a lot of reasons for my being late, some reflecting my moral character (which clearly is of a much lower level than that of the posters above!), some reflecting challenges going on in my life that some of the other people that I deal with may or may not be dealing with. It is probably my single greatest flaw in dealing with other people. I used to take on board all the self-righteous indignation of the people who are on time until I noticed that, at least in my life, the people who are on time often have one or another flaw that might or might not be frustrating to me. I try to forgive them, and hope they will forgive me. Happily most of the people in my life are aware of their own shortcomings, and are pretty kind to me about mine.

  13. posted by Erica on

    Oh – and, by the way, sometimes the reason I’m late is because there are more people making demands on me than I can handle And they won’t take no for an answer. (Often, the more self-righteous they are, the less likely they are to take no for an answer. And then to be critical for not living up to their expectations.)

  14. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Bobbin and Alice, with the Prius I never have to pull the car keys out of my purse, either to unlock the car or to start the motor; the key isn’t really a “key” in the traditional sense. That’s the only reason I mentioned it.

  15. posted by MJ Ray on

    Don’t leave house or car keys near a door. It makes it easy for thieves to reach in through a letterbox, pet door or broken window and take them.

  16. posted by Virginia Allain on

    When I was a boss, I had to counsel people who were chronically late for work. Since we had public service desks, staff had to be there on time so the customers could be served.

    They would give excuses like there was a traffic tie-up, there was a long line at the fast food place, my alarm didn’t go off…

    I’d tell them that they needed to build time into their schedule to allow for those events (and to buy a new alarm clock). You can be the greatest worker ever, but if you aren’t there, then you are of no use to your organization.

  17. posted by Lena on

    My mom is always late to things, and she says she doesn’t like to be early, because then she’s stuck waiting.

    I used to be the same way, until my friend’s husband sent me an article that said that people who are chronically late are self-centered and think that their time is more important than yours – I got his message loud and clear!

    It was never my intention to show others that their time isn’t worth as much as mine – I just always tried to time leaving to arrive at the perfect time, which always ended up being later than it should have been.

    I also hated the stress of running late, so now I try to get to everything 15 minutes early

  18. posted by Her from there on

    I had a girlfriend who asked me to mentor her. We set a time and each week she was late. I had a toddler who had a set sleep time and if she didnt arrive in that time, I couldnt talk to her. I explained that, and her explanation in return was that people just had to understand she was busy and when she was on break from work, she didnt want to be tied down to set times. I was most amused, because she was single and childless so didnt have a clue about kids only sleeping for certain amounts of time, whether you’re on break or not. She was also hate to church music practice.

    So, one day, after numerous warnings, as soon as the agreed upon time arrived and passed, I went to the back of my house and sat very quietly reading a book. After abut 30 minutes I heard the friend arrive. She knocked on the door and I ignored her. She rang my house phone from her mobile and I ignored that too. After about 5 minutes she gave up and left. When my son woke up, I drove past her house and left a letter in the letterbox that said “We agreed on 10am. Please be on time next week”.

    The interesting thing was after that, she was on time to all things, including music practice. She actually said she was just waiting for someone to pull her up on her tardiness, so it was an attention seeking thing!

    I have another friend who is always late but I start everything without her. She then tries to stay later to ‘make up’ for being late but I just say we have somewhere else to be or its time for her to leave. When I say something starts at 2pm, it starts at 2pm.

    I may sound like a Nazi in that, but if I can be on time for 95% of things (and call if I’m detained for the other 5%) then so can everyone else.

  19. posted by adora on

    Being chronically late is rarely a time management problem. It is a passive-aggressive way for those without power to control others.

    This is why workers are late for work as a protest against their boss. College students are late to class because they think too highly of themselves but have no real power at all. It is a way to protest against the teachers.

    To be on time, you must value others like you value yourself. Life is made with time. When you steal a minute from someone, you rob them of their life.

  20. posted by purpleBee on

    Having been guilty of tardiness in the past I now make the effort to be on time because, being in my 40’s, being on time may be one of the few advantages I have in the workplace. Especially when in comes to competing with pretty, clever, tardy younger people.

    I agree with Lullaby – here in Australia you lose your medical or dental appointment if you’re late. Often Drs run a little late but it often seems ti be from patients making a 5 minute consultation and having a 10 or 15 minute question.

  21. posted by WilliamB on

    Many good things already said in the above comments, so I’ll try to avoid a “me too” comment.

    When I fail to be on time, it’s a combination of one-more-thing-itis, inertia (hard to change track or a body at rest remaining at rest), and occasionally lack of enthusiam. I’ve noticed, though, that if I have a meeting, then I’m on time.

    I would be fine with my doctor cancelling appointments for patients who were 15 min late IF and ONLY if the same standard to himself. Damned if I know why a blantant double-standard should be allowed in a doctor’s office but no where else.

  22. posted by Lisa on

    I am married to someone chronically late. He is an MD, but his tardiness was a problem long before he went to medical school. I know I can’t rely on him, ever. I’ve had to let go of any anger regarding this issue. It’s taken 16 years. Sometimes I am amazed we are still married but I’m that awesome 🙂 If I die first, he’ll be late to my funeral, I have no doubt. Some things just can not be changed.

  23. posted by nicky on

    I thought the Prius reference sounded a bit smug tbh…not only am I really organised I drive a hybrid car! which.seemed a bi out.of character for Jeri

  24. posted by Brian on


    If your feeling is that it is a bit out of character for Jeri, maybe you should trust that feeling, and you should think “Maybe it is me….”.

  25. posted by Dawn on

    To Adora: I don’t think your generalizations of the reasons people are late are necessarily accurate. I have been chronically late and have much improved this issue. I noticed looking back that the jobs I was late too I was unhappy in those positions. When I have a job that I love or a college course that I love I am prompt at all times. I don’t agree that all people who ate late do so as a means of control even if it is passive aggressive.

    And Dorothy: you mentioned that when you wait someplace you come armed with reading materials. I was pleased with your optimism and level of tolerance. I, like you, practice patience if my doctor is running behind or if I am behind a slow driver or even if my food takes longer than expected at a restaurant. Though being late steals another’s time, stressful responses harm our health

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