I have many desirable work qualities. I’m a fast, accurate writer who can turn a phrase. I’m an innovative problem solver who can identify and fix gaps or flaws. I’m a (com)passionate leader who can motivate people to collaborate on a project. I’m even proficient with both Mac and Windows.
However, I have a terrible flaw, an eighth deadly sin. I can’t seem to improve my nature and overcome this horrible thing, and it tortures me as the words thud through my mind: “Why am I like this?”
I am always late.
Don’t get me wrong — I make my deadlines. But it’s good that I work from home, because if you give me any physical place to be at a certain time, I will rarely arrive on time. The universe seems to throw an obscene amount of traffic in my way. I enter some sort of time warp in which I have an hour to get to the place and suddenly it’s 5 minutes to the hour and I’m just now getting in the car. I push the edges of the speed limit just enough to shave a few minutes.
Oh good, I’m only 13 minutes late instead of 15!
I’m also just perpetually behind on my personal projects. Brilliant(?) drafts languish in my writing app, waiting for the final polish. Social media posts that are sure to win me 100(?) new followers go unsent, as Facebook oh-so-helpfully notifies me, “You haven’t posted to your page in a while.” I moved into my new apartment six months ago and still haven’t hung all my art on the walls. They lean against a random wall, mocking me.
I can’t seem to catch up! And it got me wondering what went wrong…
I was late to my own birth. My due date was June 5, but I apparently liked it in the womb. While my brother arrived not only on time and with fanfare (his birthday is July 5 — my mom went into labor as fireworks went off), I took my sweet time. At that time, labor was not typically induced for babies who refused to come out. Eventually, I got tired of torturing my poor mom, and three weeks later, I finally burst out into the world. Even before birth, I was marching to my beat and being horribly selfish with my time.
The Typical Lazy Teen
By the time I reached my teenage years, oversleeping would become the bane of my existence. If I had a dollar for every time I was racing to the bus with unbuttoned clothing and wet hair, I could have skipped the student loans for college.
Part of this was just being a teenager. Many teens’ circadian rhythms have them getting sleepy later at night. As you might imagine, that means they need to sleep later in the morning. Having to catch the bus at 7:30, 7:00, or even 6:00 a.m. is hardly conducive to the rest that our growing bodies needed.
Still, I felt perpetually embarrassed by my sleepiness. I’ll never forget my parents hollering at me, “Get up! You’re sleeping the day away!” on the weekends, when I regularly slept until noon or later. They didn’t understand — I was just so. damn. tired. Eventually, I started to realize that it was a problem. My fatigue contributed to my tardiness throughout college, but I had a hard time getting any doctor to understand that I didn’t want to oversleep and be late to class. Too many times, I’d miss it altogether.
Almost two decades later, I learned that I suffered from a genetic B12 deficiency that contributed to extreme fatigue. I’d witnessed a parade of medical professionals who scoffed at my complaints of not being able to get out of bed. The final doctor actually tested my B12 levels and said he’d never seen someone with levels so low. “I’m amazed you could get out of bed at all,” he said.
Still, the damage was done. My tardiness ruined my reputation with some of my bosses and professors, who ignored my careful work and earnest devotion to my tasks and instead chastised me for my lack of professionalism. I realized that to many people, being late was truly a deal-breaker.
Why was I like this?
My Time in the Caribbean
On my study abroad trip to Belize and Guatemala, I discovered that “Caribbean time” is a thing (even though we were on the mainland). I felt slightly better about myself after my group would regularly make appointments with informants and find ourselves waiting hours for them to show up. In many Caribbean cultures, the construct of time doesn’t have the same urgency that it does in the United States. Three p.m. is meaningless — it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast point of time.
Everything moves more slowly in Central America. People take their time to prepare and eat food (which makes it really wonderful), but also to make their way to meet someone or pick up us confused gringos at the bus depot (which makes it really annoying). I spent half that trip waiting for something and the other half evaluating my own sense of time. My brain changed during that trip. It dilated time and taught me to slow down.
At least, until I graduated.
The Dreaded Time-Clock
Working in retail during and after college, I quickly discovered that every second of my time cost or earned me money. Having no car, I’d wake at 5 a.m., bike to the bus stop, take two buses, and then bike the rest of the way to work. At one point in my life, I was working three retail jobs from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (I know, I’m such a lazy millennial) and taking an absurd combination of public transit and my own bike to get there.
Naturally, I’d run into issues, whether a delayed bus, a flat tire, or my own exhaustion trekking in the Florida heat. One time, I was hit by a motorist who drove their car into the bike lane for no apparent reason. My supervisor was not sympathetic even when I hobbled up to the dreaded time clock with a busted knee and wonky wheel. My knee never recovered, and neither did my pride.
When you work retail, it’s not even acceptable to glide in the door and swipe your timecard on the dot at 7:00 a.m. One minute late either clocking in or out, you get written up. Of course, it is totally okay for them to keep you late without paying you or make you skip breaks. I’ve never felt as commodified as I have while working retail. Even my bathroom breaks were monetized.
I wish I could say that this tyrannical system taught me to be super-punctual. Instead, I developed a strange sense of defiance. Perhaps it was the unpaid minutes and abuse by retail managers who skirted the law to squeeze every dime out of my soul. Perhaps it was the feeling that I could never guarantee my timeliness and that it ultimately didn’t matter if I was 30 seconds late.
Time Management Tips from a Tardy Worker
All that experience has actually given me some great insight into time management — the key to productivity. I hear you: Why would you listen to someone who can’t even manage to be on time? Well, despite rarely being punctual, I still get a lot done in a short amount of time. And that’s because of the lessons I learned from my perpetual lateness.
Don’t underestimate the time you need.
Now that I work from home, I don’t have to battle traffic (as much) or fear the time clock. This separation gave me time to reflect on what was really causing my tardiness.
I was perpetually late because I simply wasn’t devoting enough time to what I needed to do. A lot of people underestimate the time that tasks will actually take, whether it’s getting ready in the morning, commuting to work, or getting a project done. They also neglect to build in bathroom breaks, water breaks, or, you know, mental breaks.
When making your to-do list for the day, estimate the time you need for each of your tasks. I love Remember the Milk because it lets me add time estimates, then see how many hours I’ve scheduled in any given day. I was stunned to see that I was giving myself something like 13 hours of work. While possible, that completely neglected my need to eat, do chores, or use the bathroom.
Work and do errands efficiently.
Find ways to combine similar errands and locations. I was spending a lot of time squeezing in errands or chores before work or meetings, which was making me late. I started to build my schedule around my location. Now that I live in a large metropolitan area, I have to be very judicious in how I schedule my life — and I realized how much time I had been wasting before.
I get it: your preferred grocery store or happy hour spot may not be near your workplace. Or your boss calls you to an afternoon meeting at headquarters, which is half an hour away from your kids’ school. It happens. Look for other ways to tackle things on the basis of your location or “context.” Again, Remember the Milk is good for this.
Do things when you have the energy to do them.
I am a morning and night writer. During the afternoon and evening, my brain simply doesn’t work as well in this capacity. So, whether I’m writing for myself or for a client, I schedule those tasks for the hours that I know I can bang out a lot of content.
Likewise, I absolutely do not feel like doing chores or errands at certain times or days of the week, and I’ve noticed that when I try to do so, it takes me at least twice as long to complete those tasks. It is far more efficient if I do those things when I’m in a mode to do so.
Don’t take this advice the wrong way: I know most of us don’t ever really want to do the dishes, so don’t take this article as an excuse to skip your chores! Rather, find that time when you feel like moving around and doing manual labor, or use it as your zen time when you need a mental break from work.
I still feel like I’m running behind, but I’ve learned a lot about my preferences and self-care needs by working from home. I now have indisputable proof that people with “real jobs” (read: 9-to-5s) aren’t necessarily harder workers or more “professional,” and that being tardy doesn’t make you lazy.
If anything, I was perpetually tardy because I was trying so hard to get a lot done. My workaholism was making me late to both work and life. By finding more balance in my life, I discovered the importance of how I conceived of my time. Turns out my retail manager was wrong: the time on the clock wasn’t the source of my value. I was.
Little Miss Diagnosis
“Are there no stairs from the first floor?” a random lady asked me mockingly as I, an apparently able-bodied…
The Remote Worker’s Guide to Work–Life Balance
Whether you’re a freelancer, remote staff member, or entrepreneur, you likely work from home part of the time if not…
Enjoyed this story? Want my secret stories and behind-the-scenes content, plus exclusive writing advice? Join my mailing list.