Sunday, November 22, 2009


When I was a teenager, long, long ago, we would tease one another and hurl insults back and forth, trying to prove who was the smartest (or, as we would refer to it now, "snarkiest") one in the bunch. When you made an appropriately on-point comment or low blow, the crowd with laugh and crow, " BUSTED!" It meant that the person had nailed your flaws, and there was little you could say in response.

Well, that was the refrain going through my brain as I read a recent piece on professors' habits of (and excuses for) lateness. In his essay, "Sorry I'm late," Duke professor Mike Munger calls out 4 types of lateness. See if any of them reflect your own lateness styles and issues:

The Platonic traveler. ...Chronically late people live in the imperfect world, but believe they can travel inside their own minds. If their house is 11 minutes away from the campus, without traffic or stoplights, then they assume that they can actually travel from their home to the meeting room in 11 minutes.

(What I would call) The Incompetent Busy Person.
Incompetent people believe they are busy, but they are just inefficient. Colleagues who are always late are revealing signs of a larger incompetence in many other, less visible, parts of their lives.

(what I would call) The one whose office is too close.
For this group of latecomers, the closer their office is to the room, the later they arrive at the meeting. ...If the session is just down the hall, they wait until the last minute, maybe dial up one more co-author, grade one more paper. Then when Ms. Close does show up, five minutes late, she says, "Oh, sorry I'm late. I was just making a phone call."

The first will be last.
Mr. First shows up, parks his folders, sees the room is empty, and heads for the coffeepot. Because he is two minutes early, he chats up the staff. He finally arrives 10 minutes late, but his papers and BlackBerry sit there in mute proxy, a talisman of timeliness.

I have seen meetings turn into Molière set pieces, almost but never quite getting started, for 20 minutes or more. Folks take turns, saying, "Oh, Smith's not here. I'm going to get a soda. Anyone want cookies?" Smith comes back, but by that time Mbutu has left to retrieve a book. "We can't start without Mbutu; I'll just be gone a minute." Grrrrrrrr.

How bad is it that I have been (and sometimes, all of my constant efforts to the contrary, continue to be) ALL FOUR of these people? I overestimate my ability to get somewhere quickly, I try to fit in one more phone call/email/document, and I try to justify my lateness by pleading "busy-ness." Each time I do it, I chastise myself and try to make a plan to do better the next time.

Unfortunately, I do not come from a timely family. My mother, in particular, has almost no ability to remember commitments or plan effectively to show up somewhere on time. Moreover, I do not get the impression she much cares. Perhaps one of the saddest days I remember was recently calling my 60-something year old mother to ask about her latest part-time position, and she told me that she had been let go. She explained that it was because she had been late to work too many times. She thought that they were completely unreasonable, "because I got to work on time a lot more, since they had said it was a problem!"

After years of being forgotten at Hebrew School, along with my friends, when mom was supposed to be driving carpool for us... After making a special effort to travel back to my home state early to spend time with my mother, only to find out that she had gone to the beach that day, even though we had talked about my visit... After years of being late to school so often that they told my mother they would penalize HER for my lateness... After years of sitting in a car with my siblings and my father while he angrily laid on the horn and shouted for my mother to "COME ON!!"... after years of promising that I wouldn't be like her, and taking many steps to better organize and prepare myself every day, I STILL find myself challenged to get where I need to be on time, with the resources I need.

Perpetual lateness is an especially challenging problem to have for someone in an administrative position. It is disrespectful of others to be late to a meeting, and I am demoralized when it happens. I feel like a failure, and I vow not to do it again. I work quite hard to overcome my late tendencies, but I am not always successful. In some ways, it reminds me of dieting. You make a plan to eat healthy, but then you spy some cookies and break down and snack on them. You can beat yourself up for eating the cookies, or you can just try to eat better the next day.

It doesn't hurt to have a reminder from Munger that excuses are not enough, and that chronic lateness can and should be avoided. All I can say is that I am trying.