We all know someone who never seems to be on time, whether it's to a lunch date or a work meeting. But is there a good explanation for why some people are always late?
The habit of being tardy probably results from a number of factors, including time perception, time management and personality, experts say.
"It is likely that there's a mechanism in the brain that causes some people to be late for meetings because they underestimate the time it will take them to get there," Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and the co-author of a 2017 study in the journal Hippocampus, told Live Science.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain which processes some aspects of time, such as remembering when to do something and how long it takes, Spiers said. Research published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience suggests that neurons in the hippocampus acting as "time cells" contribute to our perception and memory of events, but why exactly some people perpetually underestimate time is unclear.
One factor may be how familiar we are with a space. For the 2017 study, Spiers asked 20 students who had newly moved to London to sketch a map of their college district and estimate travel times to different destinations. While the students' space estimates expanded if they knew an area well, their gauge of travel time contracted with familiarity. "If you're very familiar with a space, you start to discount the hassle it will take," Spiers said.
In some cases, people who are late may not factor enough time to complete tasks unrelated to travel, such as getting ready in the morning. Research published in the journal Memory & Cognition suggests that we make time estimates based on how long we think tasks have taken us in the past, but our memories and perceptions aren't always accurate.
"If we have a lot of experience performing a task, we are more likely to underestimate how long it will take," Emily Waldum, an adjunct professor at Campbell University in North Carolina and the lead author of a 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, told Live Science in an email. In the study, Waldum found that environmental factors, such as music, can distort your sense of time.
Specifically, Waldum showed that when doing a general knowledge questions task, some people incorrectly estimated the task's length based on the number of songs they heard playing in the background. Younger adults tended to inflate their time estimates if they heard four short songs compared with two longer songs, something that didn't seem to influence older adults' perception of time.
Another environmental factor may be crowdedness. In a 2022 study in the journal Virtual Reality, researchers asked participants to estimate the length of more or less crowded simulated subway trips. They found that crowded commutes felt like they took 10% longer than less busy rides, which was linked to it being an unpleasant experience.
Personality also plays a role in running late. Certain personality traits, such as reduced conscientiousness, can cause some people to forget tasks that they had planned ahead of time, Waldum said. "Another factor that may influence a person's timeliness is how prone to multitasking they are," she added.
Research published in the journal Advances in Cognitive Psychology has shown that people juggling several tasks at once are less likely to remember and complete other scheduled tasks on time. "The best laid plans can fail simply because we don't have enough attentional resources left to carry them out successfully," Waldum said.
Latecomers sometimes don't perceive themselves as such, Grace Pacie, author of "Late! A Timebender's guide to why we are late and how we can change" (Punchline Publications, 2020), told Live Science. That's because people who run behind schedule tell themselves and others that they can be punctual. "We can be on time when it matters, when there will be negative consequences for our lateness, like missing a flight," Pacie said.
In the absence of a deadline, however, these people often lose track of time. A 2019 review published in the journal Medical Science Monitor found that individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can find it hard to process and estimate the passing of time.
Some people struggle to be on time because they deliberately delay tasks. "Lateness can be a symptom of procrastination," Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, told Live Science. Procrastination is usually rooted in a difficult emotional relationship to the task, Sirois said.
The difference between procrastination and lateness is that the latter affects our relationship with others, Pacie said. "The same people who perceive us as always being late are the people who matter to us the most, so we can be very hurtful when we say we can be on time when it matters."
So what can perpetually late people do to be punctual for meetings and avoid disappointing friends and loved ones? A self-proclaimed "timebender," Pacie suggested setting alarms and reminders on your phone. Another of her tried and tested tactics is to set pre-event deadlines. "My favorite ruse is to offer somebody a lift," Pacie said. "It means that you arrange to meet them at a sensible time."
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Sascha is a U.K.-based trainee staff writer at Live Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Southampton in England and a master’s degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and the health website Zoe. Besides writing, she enjoys playing tennis, bread-making and browsing second-hand shops for hidden gems.
I read this article knowing it would be baloney and it was. Always being late is a form of passive aggression. Imagine being a child of ten waiting to be picked up at 5 pm after swimming lessons. Now it's six, then seven... Finally at 9 pm the YMCA is going to close and you still haven't been picked up. Can't reach home by phone because the phone is busy. Imagine your dentist telling you you can't be a patient anymore because they have waited too many times after closing hours for you to be picked up. And I had a babysitting client who was even worse. A minimum of two hours late every time. Being late is a form of passive aggression. These people enjoy making other people squirm in anger.Reply
Neurotypicals assume the worst when you're often late, because it's not hard for them, but we're not all cookie cutters of each other. I was often late in my 20s, not knowing I had ADHD. I would stress so much and hate myself that I couldn't quite seem to do something so basic to most people. People say you don't care but I, for one, cared too much. This one woman at work was always so nasty that I got so scared of being late, I'd end up freezing, staring at the clock willing my body to unlock so that I could leave. And I'd be late because my fear of her judgementalness was so overwhelming I actually couldn't move!! It was awful.Reply
The people like her, who have no compassion for people like me make it worse. We know you're judging us. We know you hate us. We know you think we're doing it specifically and on purpose. I wasn't. My brain simply lied to me about how much time things take. It's ok that you don't understand that.
I'm rarely late anymore or at least not like I was, I am not sure. My fix? Start getting ready 2-3 hours earlier, and I set timers every 20 minutes. Difficult to do. I obviously care about being on time, a lot, and always have. What sucks is when I'm still late sometimes even though I've been trying to get out the door for hours. Luckily it's rare now, and I'm able to say I accidentally slept thru my alarm. I'd be embarrassed for someone to know it takes me that long of a time with concentrated effort and I might still be late.
I blame digital watches for making too many people become time pedants: jeez, lighten up, you'll live longer.Reply
I don't know about the passive-aggressive "diagnosis", but I had a sister who was both the star of all the school plays/musicals and the beautiful blonde homecoming queen -- and she was always late at least 10-15 minutes. People were always waiting on her, rather than the other way around.
When she was given the responsibility of driving both her and my other sister to school in the morning it got so bad the latter was driven to tears for always also being made late.
I once went to visit for the holidays and she was two hours late picking me up at the airport. The excuse was that she had combined a bunch of other errands with getting me, but it was really that she just wasn't very considerate of others, or had learned early on that she didn't have to be, on account of her looks and talent.
SLR said:I read this article knowing it would be baloney and it was. Always being late is a form of passive aggression. Imagine being a child of ten waiting to be picked up at 5 pm after swimming lessons. Now it's six, then seven... Finally at 9 pm the YMCA is going to close and you still haven't been picked up. Can't reach home by phone because the phone is busy. Imagine your dentist telling you you can't be a patient anymore because they have waited too many times after closing hours for you to be picked up. And I had a babysitting client who was even worse. A minimum of two hours late every time. Being late is a form of passive aggression. These people enjoy making other people squirm in anger.
Your response shows your ignorance and lack of empathy. While it is statistically relevant that a minute percentage of people may just be passive aggressive, to diminish and overstate all people with time blindness are this way, is grossly inaccurate and childish. I'm sure you have more education and experience than everyone cited in the article (this is sarcasm). Time blindness is a real phenomenon. Of course, it is not an excuse for hurting others, it is simply an explanation.
Everyone is late sometimes. My experience is that people who are always late view themselves very highly and thus view their time as more important than yours. This has to be the case for this to keep happening.Reply
In short, they are selfish. They respond with demeaning insults, like lighten up, indicating that the person who was there at the agree time is uptight. In my experience is that when you plan for their tardiness and start showing up after them, these people are angry. This sis because they value them selves more highly. Some relationships are worth it most are not. You will notice their selfishness in other aspects as well.