Why am I always late? - A chat with Bernie Roth

(Photo via Flickr user Dave Stokes) I am almost always late. I've generally dismissed it as a byproduct of my schedule and a life lived in the modern world. If you're late, you must be busy. If you're busy, you must be in demand. If you're in demand, you must be successful. There are a lot of assumptions there, most of which are wrong. Nonetheless, lateness is a status symbol.

I have plenty of role models for timeliness: I don't come from a family of late people, and my mentors, for the most part, respond promptly to e-mails and show up on time. That's part of what makes them great mentors.

Despite all of this, I've developed a nasty habit of being late. I'm not talking about an hour or two. I'm that annoying three-, five- or ten-minutes late that's just enough to be behind but not enough to be a meeting-killer. Except, of course, when it is.

The status symbol of lateness is a false idol, and I'm determined to stop sacrificing my productivity and peace of mind at its altar.

So I decided to seek advice from the d.school's academic director, Bernie Roth. Bernie's a supremely accomplished professor who joined the Stanford faculty in 1962. He teaches a d.school class called "The Designer in Society," which I knew I couldn't be on time for and so did not apply. The class provokes students to turn design thinking inward.

I took a few minutes of Bernie's time to ask him how to stop being late. His first pointer: Flip your mindset.

"If you really mean that you're going to be there, then [leave] enough time to do it," Bernie said. "Sometimes, I refer to it as double-time. Most of us leave half-time, not double-time.

"You really have to believe in it, not just pretend like a New Year's resolution. And it's very simple; it's not like rocket science or anything. It's just a matter of 'I'm going to leave and be there early. I'm not just going to leave and be on time.'"

As Bernie was talking, I glanced at his schedule. It looked like mine on a horse-pill's worth of steroids. Here was someone who could consistently be on time for his engagements with a calendar that had four events happening nearly simultaneously. Oh, and he's writing a book. How does he do it? How does he maintain the mindset of being on time, when he could get ahead on other things -- e-mails, say, or his book?

"It's a matter of priority, and often [being late] is not respecting a thing enough to give it priority," Bernie said. He recounted how he'd recently committed to help with a class at 9 a.m. While he could have squeezed in some time to work on his book at 7:30 a.m., he didn't, because he knew it would keep him from being on time.

"If you really have the intention to do it and not just talk about it, you have to give it the attention to make it work. It's as simple as that."

Okay, so what about e-mails - how does he not get sucked into that vortex?. "One pass. Just handle it at the moment," Bernie said.

I'm going to give this a try and do the following things:

  • I will flip my mindset. The meetings I have on my calendar are the most important events at that time.
  • I will not agree to things that do not give me enough time to prioritize my commitments.
  • I will ignore tasks that I know will take longer than an hour, one hour before a meeting.
  • I will answer e-mails in one pass, meaning I will not scan them and file them for later.

Do you suffer from lateness? Let us know if you decide to apply Bernie's advice.