Better late than never (or, Why some people are always late)

illustration of the White Rabbit from Disney's Alice in Wonderland

It’s no secret that I’m not a morning person. I once advised a colleague’s assistant never to book morning meetings with me. “So nothing before 9:30?” she asked. “Better make it 10:30 just to be safe,” I responded. She thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.

I’m also very often running late. Not to everything, but to a lot of things. Most people who know me have learnt to expect that I’ll be late and sometimes even rely on it.

I once read that people who are late value their own time more than other people’s. I was mortified that people might think that of me because the truth is I’ve run late for things all my life. I was known as a dawdler before I was five years old. My family joked that I was born on a “slow planet” where everyone did everything slowly. I’m sure it’s genetic. I don’t know who I got the gene from but there has to be at least one ancestor back there who was also notoriously late to things.

I’ve learnt through observation that the brain of the late-comer is wired very differently to the on-timer. Add not being a morning person to the mix and you have a lethal combination which will kill your chances of being on time to anything, especially if it’s in the first half of the day.

Here are my key findings:

Late-comers are incredibly inept at time management – but only in regards to how long it will take to get somewhere. I’m great at managing my time at work, but absolutely crap at working out when to leave the house in order to be somewhere on time. If it takes half an hour to drive into the city, for example, I’ll leave with exactly half an hour to go. I nearly always forget to add 5-10 minutes to find a parking spot, and another five minutes to walk from there to the meeting spot. Oh and even if I adjust my driving time to account for traffic, I’ll nearly always get it wrong and not leave enough time.

We late-comers also understand time very differently. For on-time folk, there’s early, on time and late. Pretty simple, really. For the late-comers, there are myriad shades of grey, especially where ‘late’ is concerned.

For example, for those of us who elect to start work around 9:30 (notice I said “around” and not “by”), when the majority of people are at work by 9:00, there’s a huge difference between arriving at work at 9:55 as opposed to 10:05, the former being nowhere near as ‘bad’ as the latter. But to the on-time crowd, there is absolutely no difference whatsoever. To them you’re just late. Again. In fact, they consider your 9:30 start time as late, so really, you’re kidding yourself if you think they appreciate the fact you got in before 10:00am.

Oh and late-comers also think that if we arrive somewhere two minutes ahead of schedule – or even one minute, for that matter – that constitutes being ‘early’. But on-time folk consider anything less than 15 minutes ahead of schedule to be ‘on time’. You can’t win with these people.

Notwithstanding the above, late-comers do not understand the concept of being early. It just doesn’t make any sense to us. If you have to be somewhere at a certain time, why on earth would you get there any earlier than you had to? What would that achieve?

Many years ago my family had a standard get-together for lunch at my parents’ place at 1:00pm on a Saturday. It would take me half an hour to drive there. One Saturday it was 12:20 and I found myself with ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for lunch so I decided to replace a lightbulb in my kitchen. As I removed the glass light-fitting it slipped from my fingers and smashed onto the tiles, flinging glass splinters everywhere. By the time I had cleaned it up I was running about 30 minutes late.

The point is, when I told the story to my family they asked me, “Why did you have to find something to do at 12:20? Why couldn’t you just leave early?”

I swear to you the thought never occurred to me. My brain just doesn’t function like that.

Late-comers actually believe that the universe sabotages their chances of being on-time. Or to put it another way, we’re not great at taking responsibility for our lateness. You see, we’re constantly thwarted by events outside our control. The train was late and the next one was cancelled, the driver in front of me did 20 under the speed limit, I got a call I had to take just before leaving the house. You get the picture.

I once temped with a woman named Ann, who on finding out my star-sign said to me, “Oh my – aren’t you dramatic?! And you’re always late – but you’ve always got a thousand excuses because it’s never your fault – oh noooooooo….” As she rolled her eyes, I laughed so hard that I literally fell off my chair and onto the floor.

On-timers really don’t have much time for our excuses. The whole time we’re explaining about the unexpected roadworks (or whatever) they’re thinking, Yes but I managed to get here on time. Why couldn’t you??

Not only do on-time folk resent our excuses, they resent us for not being punished for our perpetual lateness. Surely it can’t be fair, they reason, that they make an effort to be on time while the late-comers just waltz in having kept others waiting and yet still get away with it?

Of course, late-comers are punished. Society runs to the beat of the on-timer’s drum. We’re all measured by that standard and those of us who don’t make the grade are judged accordingly.

It’s for this reason I’m using what I’ve learnt to improve myself. I’m working on my time management ineptitude, and taking responsibility for my lateness. You see it’s never too late to learn something new: in fact, better late than never.

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Theories About Time part 2: the Blip Theory

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, my second theory about time, formulated just last year, is called the Blip Theory. I appreciate that’s not nearly as sexy sounding as “Slowing Time Down”.

I came up with the Blip Theory as part of a series of strategies to start seriously combatting stress.

Over the last few years, it’s become very apparent to me that my body manifests any stress I’m feeling in very annoying and painful – albeit sometimes creative – ways. Eczema, migraines, mouth ulcers, cold sores. You name it, I’ll get it.

Seeing anything in perspective is bound to help you understand and deal with it better, so I saw that as a key strategy: find a way to see my problems or issues in perspective.

People will often tell you the best way to do this is to compare your own problems to the much worse problems of others.

For example, are you stressing about your work? At least you don’t have a terminal illness! Do you have a terminal illness? At least you don’t have a terminal illness in a war-torn country in which there’s no proper healthcare! That sort of thing.

I’ve always found that kind of advice unhelpful. Not having someone else’s problems is not a consolation because I’m not that other person. I’m not living their life. I’m living my own. And my own life stresses me out.

So I came up with my own perspective measure. I started imagining my entire life – from birth to death (in the far, far, distant future!) – as a simple timeline about 30 centimetres in length, each centimetre covering about three years. Then I’d think about where the particular issue that I was stressing about, whether big or small, would appear on the timeline in relation to the rest of my life.

That would then lead to the realisation that most things that I stress about are just little blips in my life that really, in the scheme of things, don’t bear worrying about and certainly don’t warrant getting sick over.

I call that the Blip Realisation, and it leads to the Blip Theory: Time is the measure of perspective by which we should judge all events in our life in order to reduce stress.

When you apply the Blip Theory to the majority of issues that stress you out, you’ll realise that they’re so miniscule in the scheme of your own life that they’re actually not worth stressing over.

I have to confess that sometimes I’m so caught up in the day to day minutiae of my life that I forget to apply it right away. An issue gets the better of me, I start stressing, and my eczema starts flaring up.

Then I remember the Blip Theory, think about my timeline, see the issue in perspective and the eczema, or whatever else has manifested, goes away. The stress dissipates.

It seriously works. Every single time.

PS 1 If you really want to take the Blip Theory to an extreme that will blow your mind, take a look at this fantastic post on wait but why about putting time into perspective. (Thanks to my friend TC for the share via Twitter.)

PS 2 There have been some interesting posts on stress on The Six Element recently that you may like to check out.

Theories About Time part 1: the Slowing Time Down Theory

Over the last decade or so I’ve developed two theories about time. For a non-physicist – in fact, for a non-scientist – I think that’s pretty impressive.

The first one, formulated some time between 2000 and 2004, I will call the Slowing Time Down Theory. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

In 2004, I went to Greece for ten days for the Athens Olympics. Nearly everyone I told thought I was mad to go “all that way” and spend “all that money” on airfares, not to mention “all that time” in flight, for just ten days on the ground.

The conventional wisdom in Australia is that if you travel to Europe you need to go at least for several months, which is surely as much a legacy of our days as an English colony as our long service leave entitlements are.

While I didn’t feel the need to justify my actions to anyone, I did take the time to explain two things to each person who seemed outraged or shocked by my decision.

Firstly, my sister-in-law had given me some great advice when I was deciding whether to go to Mexico in 2000 for eight days and that was: “Len, they can’t all be long trips.” In other words, if you wait till you have the money and time to take a three month holiday every time you want to travel longer than 10 hours away from Australia you’ll be waiting a very long time. In fact, the stars may never align. So better to take short trips when you can than potentially miss out on going at all.

Secondly, according to my Slowing Time Down Theory, the ten day trip would actually seem like a lot longer. In fact, it would feel more like a month. So the trip would definitely warrant the expense and the time spent flying.

This is what I had experienced in Mexico in 2000. I was gone for just eight days but it felt more like a few weeks. Then in 2001 I was in Greece for a month but it felt more like two to three months.

Why is it so? Well, it’s really quite straightforward.

Adult life is generally very highly scheduled. We are constantly moving through life according to a relatively strict routine. The alarm goes off at a regular time, you catch public transport (or drive) to work at a regular time, you start work at a regular time, have your lunch break at a regular time, finish work at a regular time. During the day, especially if you work in an office and super especially if you work in Government, you have regular meetings at regular times. You catch public transport (or drive) home, eat dinner, watch the news and/or your favourite TV shows and then finally go to bed all at – you guessed it – regular times. Do you go to the gym or piano or book club or any other activities? Chances are you do it at a regular time.

Weekends are a little bit more relaxed, but even then there’s usually a routine, especially if you have kids.

We are constantly aware of time. Where we need to be at a certain time, how long we need to be there, and what we’re doing next.

The Slowing Time Down Theory holds that the moment you break your regular routine and stop accounting for every minute of your day, time seems to slow down.

This is why when you’re on vacation, days stretch out and you seem to fit so much more into a single day. You might have things booked but they’re not at the same time every day. So it’s not that you don’t have things planned or have a schedule of sorts, it’s that it’s not a routine.

It even works if you just take time out and go away for a weekend. Weekends away always seem longer than normal weekends because you don’t follow the usual routine.

It also explains why time seems to last longer when you’re a child.

Even though your life might be routine, when you’re a kid you’re not the one doing the scheduling. It’s not you that’s hyper-aware of the time.

Others – your parents, your teacher, whoever is responsible for ringing the bell at school – are aware of it for you and propel you from one event to another. They tell you it’s time to get up, it’s time to eat breakfast, it’s time to go to school, have lunch, do your homework…and on it goes. You just float from one event to the other. And then on the holidays, when all regular activity is on hold, time seems to stretch out even longer.

As you get older and become more responsible for yourself, time suddenly starts speeding up. Next thing you know you’re saying things like, “Wow, where did the year go?” and “time flies!” and “the weekend went by too quickly!” You never hear kids saying stuff like that.

So there, my friends, you have it. The secret to slowing time down. Switch off your routine. Take off your watch. And just live.

Trust me, it works. Every time.

When life is like a game of Tetris

Finally.

I’m sitting at my desk to write. It’s something I haven’t done in a few weeks. More accurately, it’s something I haven’t done since I started back at work.

I’ve picked up a two month contract as a technical writer which I’m enjoying immensely. Not only is the work interesting and challenging, and exactly what I want to be doing, but the people at my temporary work place are great. They’re clever, professional and passionate about what they do, and they’ve been really welcoming. I couldn’t be happier.

The only trouble is, after taking four months off, it’s been a bit of a shock to the system to go back to full time work, and not just because I’m not a morning person. The real problem is figuring out how to fit all the bits of my life into a 24 hour day and a seven day week, when there’s one thing in it that seems to take up all the time and not leave much room, or energy, for anything else.

Work takes up nearly 52 hours a week, once I’ve added my lunch break and commute to and from work. I find that I’m struggling to get to basic domestic duties like cooking or hanging out washed clothes to dry. How did I fit these things in before?

I know I did it for over a decade and I’m sure I’ll get on top of it all again but somehow I need to find time to write creatively, too. Something I only really started to focus on since finishing work in January. So I not only need to get my work/life balance back, I have to get a work/life/writing balance.

I feel like my life has suddenly become like a game of Tetris. The pieces keep falling: go to work, walk the dog, cook dinner, call Mum, go to the supermarket, vacuum the house, go to the market, go to the movies, read the paper, check Twitter, wash the dishes, wash the dog, catch up with family, catch up with friends… on and on they come. “Go to work” is such a big piece: I’m trying to remember how I used to fit in all the other pieces. The thing is, every time the “I want to write” piece drops down I can’t fit it in anywhere and the pieces pile up out of control and the game ends. I lose.

I know, from personal experience as well as observation, that the busier you are, the better you become at organising your time. Several years ago I worked full time and studied part time and somehow I managed to find an extra ten or so hours in what was already a pretty busy week to fit in lectures, tutorials, study and homework, without compromising the rest of my life very much at all. So I know it’s solvable.

I also know it’s a matter of discipline. At the moment, when I come home after sitting in front of a computer and writing all day, the last thing I want to do is sit at a computer and write some more. But if writing is important to me, and it is, then I have to prioritise it and I have to find the mental discipline – and energy – to just sit down and write.

Meanwhile, it may be a little quiet on the ol’ blog front. Please be patient and understanding. I’m stuck in a game of Tetris.

Pieces piling up in the game Tetris