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How to Become More Timely at Work

How to Become More Timely at Work

It was the be-all-end-all childhood soiree. My eighth birthday party at McDonald’s and I was the last one to arrive. Although, I don’t remember being upset about it. It was what I knew.

Twenty minutes late to the first day of camp? Check!

Fifteen minutes late to the half-hour parent/teacher conference? Double-check!

When it came to being on time, I had one major player working against me. My mom. I love her to the moon but she hasn’t been on time for anything since well…the time we forgot to set the clocks ahead. And even then she was ten minutes late. Needless to say, I grew up late for everything.

However, as I moved into my twenties I learned to go from grossly late, to make 10-15 minutes late my go-to. Which is ironic that my role today is what it is...a productivity coach. Or maybe that’s exactly why I do what I do today? Either way, I’m living proof that you can go from being a “late person” to an “almost on-time person.” Or dare I say, an “early person.”

To become more timely, you can learn these three essential practices.

1) Learn to understand hidden time.

This may come as a surprise to you (it certainly did for me) but it can take upwards of five minutes to get out of your house even when you’re 100% ready to go.

That last bathroom stop, finding your phone, locking up the doors, searching for the address, swapping your purse, and bam...just like that, you’ve added at least five minutes onto your departure time. Hidden time is sneaky unaccounted minutes that rack up quickly. It’s time that gets sucked by simple tasks that typically have to do with preparation, travel, set up, or decompressing.

Like when you rush home from work at 6:00 to meet friends 25 minutes away at 6:30 pm. Theoretically, you can make it on time. But in reality, you need at least fifteen minutes of hidden time to drop your bags, change your clothes, feed your dog, and take a deep breath before you head out the door. Not to mention the time to get from the parking lot to the restaurant, after paying the meter.

Thinking like a timely person means being mindful of seemingly insignificant, hidden tasks and adding them to your plans. I’ve learned to add hidden time by playing the movie in my head. I picture myself walking into the house and doing everything that needs to get done before I leave. By seeing my next steps, I can assign a number of minutes to each one.

Now as a practice I know how long certain hidden tasks take. I need twenty minutes between getting home and getting out again. That’s a movie that’s been replayed in my mind many times.

[Related: The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Spider Web: An Odd Combination]

2) Learn to add buffer time.

I’d love it if there were no rubbernecking, coffee spills out the door, or meltdowns about why it’s not okay to spit in the kitchen sink. But I’d also love a private organic chef and clothes that fold themselves. Doesn’t mean it’s really gonna happen.

Yes, you can tell yourself that everything will go exactly according to plan, down to the last minute, with no room for error. But how’s that been working out for you? For me, it kept me running late and worse, making excuses about traffic, unexpected phone calls, or other “the dog ate my homework” reasons for my tardiness.

Timely people buffer their time. They take into account unforeseen happenstances. They set realistic expectations about what could happen between or before commitments so excuses like “I got all the red lights” or “I shouldn't have answered that text” rarely cross their path.

Turns out by padding your schedule you actually have less wasted time in your life. Having time to think and clarify are energizing results of buffer time. On the other hand, when you’re running around without a moment of downtime, you make careless mistakes and forget details.

A way I’ve learned to embrace buffer time is to add at least 20% to whatever time I think I need. Ten minutes to get to the bar? Let’s make it twelve. 45 minutes to shower and dress? I’m thinking more like 55. 30 minutes to clean up? I’ll plan on 35.

On time or early people would rather have more time than less and be more calm than chaotic.

[Related: August is a Time for Rest – and Work]

3) Learn to welcome the wait.

As someone who prides herself on checking tasks off the list, I loved shoving in “one more thing” before I had to leave for anywhere. Late people love to do things right until the very last moment, (which is really well past the last moment), so they prove they’re making the best use of their time.

You’ll answer that last email, throw in one more load of laundry, or make a call when you should be heading out the door. (Like five minutes ago). Additionally, you hate the thought of getting anywhere ahead of time. Instead of enjoying the few minutes of relaxation, you kick yourself for not finishing that last message, clearing the sink, or paying a bill.

Here’s how I’ve combatted this late person's way of thinking.

  1. I plan something small to do in case I’m early. I’ll bring a magazine, catch up on my texts, go through my schedule for the week, or make a quick call to a friend. The planned activity is specific and adds another “check” off my list so I feel motivated by it.
  2. When I catch myself thinking, “just one more thing before I leave,” I say to myself: “This can wait...get your early activity planned instead.” It’s a little mantra to remind myself that I can still get more done without being late. I’ve gone from hating being early to enjoy being the first one in.

No more apologies or excuses. No more scurrying in with my shirt untucked or hair in a mess. No more wondering, “What’s the on-time secret sauce these people have that I don’t?” People look at me differently too. Eyerolls are replaced with embraces, smiles, and an appreciation for taking the commitment seriously.

So my late friend, follow these simple practices and I promise that you, too, can be on time, all of the time. Okay, maybe most of the time.

[Related: Organized, Efficient, and Stress-Free: Seven Steps to an Easy Cross-Country Office Move]


Mridu Parikh is “The Stress Squasher.” Founder of Life Is Organized, she’s an award-winning productivity pro who helps mompreneurs get control of their demands and distractions (at work AND at home). Get her free guide to getting it all done here.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.