The Selfishness of Being Late

© www.tOrange.us, CC
© www.tOrange.us, CC
Before the holidays I shared two posts about one of my favorite subjects, the spirituality of being on time: Being On Time and 6 Tips for Being On Time. I talk frequently about this subject, and a lot of the feedback I get is about how eye-opening it is to realize you are bothering others. So let me focus a little more sharply on that aspect of the subject, on selfishness. But before I do, let me stress that I’m not encouraging you to beat up on yourself. We are all selfish a lot of the time. What I’m encouraging is greater awareness.

Selfishness can take several forms. Many people who are late have a mixture of them.

Self-seeking is when you choose your own gain over the interests of others. It’s self-seeking behavior to maximize the productivity or convenience of your own time at the expense of other people’s schedules. Doctors, for example, do this on purpose, because their time has so much monetary value, and, well, they don’t care about yours — and, as with the chronically late, typically they get more and more behind schedule as the day progresses. (If you haven’t already figured this out, book doctor’s appointments in the morning, when they still might be close to their schedule.)

Self-centeredness, on the other hand, means you are so focused on yourself and your concerns that you don’t even realize you’re harming others. It’s self-centered behavior to not notice people are bothered or to not even consider that your lateness has an impact on their serenity or productivity. You’ve left them hanging for however long, unable to start a new project or go somewhere else, and even in relatively trivial situations, there’s usually more harm done than you realize. As I said in Being On Time:

If you arrive late at a movie theater or group dinner, everyone else has to absorb your frenetic energy as you come barging in — sometimes even the strangers at other seats or tables. You are making everyone else deal with your lateness, your distraction.

Rich, a reader of a column of mine on this subject years ago offered a great simple antidote to self-centered lateness: “I have learned that when I am heading for a particular place to meet folks, it is so important to keep them in mind as I travel. It helps. It beats setting your clock ten minutes ahead.” For Rich, it is enough to be present to the potential impact he will have on others by being late.

If you’re chronically late, it’s extremely valuable to fully grasp how much of a bother you are being. And to recognize that your unreliability gradually diminishes the trust others have for you.

Another great reader comment from the past came from Catherine, who said: “As I was reading, it occurred to me that all those ‘race against time’ formula movies we all grew up watching were so detrimental. Childish thrill, indeed!”

This is perhaps the dirty little secret for a lot of people who are late. I’ve mentioned the childish thrill of making it just in time before. Catherine makes me wonder if this isn’t very deeply rooted. Like “crisis managers” who create rolling crises because they feel most alive and focused when things are at risk, how much of chronic lateness is really thrill seeking? It’s an interesting question.

What do you think? And have you experienced increasing your awareness of the impact of your lateness on others? Did it change your behavior? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences here below in comments, and they might be helpful to others too.

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  • VirginiaGirl

    Rebecca: Better late than never in this reply! But I wanted to say that I very much agree with this statement of yours: “Being extremely tolerant myself makes it difficult for me to see someone who can’t extend the small grace of overlooking a 5 minute delay in my arrival as anything other than churlish.”

    That’s pretty much how I feel… I wouldn’t be mad at someone for being 10 minutes late for something (other than maybe a Broadway show, but even then…). So I feel like people who are picky about 5-10 minutes are being a little intolerant. Like splitting the check EXACTLY down the middle or not wanting to leave an extra dollar tip.

    Well said. Of course, it’s always better NOT to be late, but I totally get your perspective.