On time is a wonderful thing

Productivity  Relationships
03 August, 2015

Habitual lateness says a lot more about you than you realise

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the birth centenary of Dr. B. P. Godrej. Dr. Godrej, was a visionary, who among many other things, launched our Cinthol brand. What is truly incredible, is that over 60 years down the line, the Cinthol Original formulation that he had pioneered – with its germicidal and deodorising properties and distinctive perfume – still remains unchanged.

One of the things that really stayed with me, was the story of how Dr. Godrej was a real stickler for punctuality. So much so, that he would start meetings at very specific times, such as at 9:52 A.M. He expected his teams to follow through and be equally particular about timing. Mr. Adi Godrej is carrying forward his father’s principle of timeliness. He too leads by example. And as many of you can vouch for, he is on time for every appointment, never misses a commitment and if you send him an email, you will hear back within half an hour, unless he is on a flight. Meetings with him usually end 5 minutes early, so that he is not late for his next meeting.

So, inspired by this, in my message this week, I want to focus on what we can do to become more punctual. How punctuality is much more than just about being on time – it is about being disciplined, sticking to commitments, being driven and on the whole, much more in control.

Quite frankly, being punctual isn’t something that should be up for debate. It is about keeping your word. You agree to something and you follow through on it. It should be as simple as that. It shows people that you can stick to your promises and by extension, that you are someone who can be counted on. That you care enough about and respect others.

For many people, if you keep them waiting on the smaller stuff, it only makes them more likely to think that you will do the same for bigger things.

Friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances – this holds for everyone, who has probably rearranged their schedules to make it on time. Waiting around is awkward and annoying, not to mention a dampener on whatever was planned for. And it gets passed on. At work, for example, the biggest culprits are more often than not, senior team members. When you are late, you delay the people you’re meeting and then it throws them off-schedule for their subsequent plans. Not to mention, the decision making and other associated planning that needs to get moved around.

On a personal front, for you, being late – rushing in, knowing you’re late, having to come up with excuses and apologies, being stressed out about the repercussions – just takes away from the best that you could be. You know the feeling.

So, clearly, no one is winning.

But that said, we can’t seem to make it work. For many of us, each time we are late, we promise ourselves that we won’t let it happen again. And that we will get better at this. But then, it happens all over again. 

Why do we end up being late?

It is not because we are just that busy. This is probably the biggest myth around being late. The busier you are, the later you get. After all, you are just swamped with so many demands. And it is okay for this to happen. That’s not true. There is a difference between being inefficient and being busy. And if you think about it, you will realise that the people who should be the most ‘busy’ (in the real sense of the word), are in fact very particular about timing. 

If you are habitually late, then it is probably because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • You think it’s ok to run late – It’s as simple as that. You just don’t care about other people’s time. You think your time is more important than everyone else’s time. So, you don’t make an effort to change.
  • Unable to judge the passage of time -For example, you start out intending to be on time. You have half an hour to your next meeting. You’re working with that in mind. But what you think is just 10 minutes passing by, is actually more like 25. And then suddenly, you find yourself thrown off schedule and rushing to your meeting.
  • Overly optimistic -Research shows a strong correlation between optimism and being late. If you’re more optimistic as a person, chances are that you will believe that there is a way for you to pack much more into your schedule than seems realistic to deliver on. You believe that you can do it all and that you don’t need to make choices. So, you sign up for all of it. And if you slip up, you believe that it will be better the next time round.
  • Underestimate time – You think it will take you 20 minutes to get somewhere, whereas it actually takes half an hour. But you persist, because you’re quite sure this is just a one-off and that your estimates are fine.
  • Procrastination – Perhaps, you are just prone to putting things off for later on. You keep them to the very last moment and then, find yourself strapped for time.
  • Easily distracted – “Something always comes up”. You start heading out for your meeting, but you stop to answer a call, then you run into someone in the corridor and you’re reminded of something you had been meaning to discuss with them. You attention shifts from one thing to another and before you know it, you’re late for what you were slated to be doing. 

There is no big and small when it comes to being punctual

Being punctual doesn’t require a special skill, but it probably means that you need to become much more structured in your approach. This is a choice you make and like any other, it comes with its own tradeoffs. For starters, you are either punctual as a person, or you are not. You can’t be selective about this. 

From Gandhi to Washington and Shakespeare to Steve Jobs, examples are plenty. For many, it was an almost maniacal drive to be on time, all the time. Nina Martyris describes Gandhi’s obsession in her essay The Most Punctual Man in India, saying:

The watch never left his side. It was the first thing Gandhi reached for when he rose each morning at 4 a.m., and the last thing he checked before going to bed, often past midnight. He consulted it frequently through the day so as never to be late for an appointment. Mahatma Gandhi’s Ingersoll pocket watch, costing just a dollar, was among the handful of material possessions he owned. Since he didn’t have a pocket to carry it in, he attached the watch to his dhoti with a safety pin and a loop of khadi string.

“You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly a minute of your time,” he wrote. “It is not ours. It belongs to the nation and we are trustees for the use of it.” Consequently, any abuse of time was unethical. “One who does less than he can is a thief,” he wrote to a friend. “If we keep a timetable we can save ourselves from the last-mentioned sin indulged in even unconsciously.”

And at the heart of this, is like she says, While this focus on punctuality may portray Gandhi as skittish and anxious, the opposite was true: a timetable allowed him to give the issue at hand his tranquil and undivided attention. From punctuality came focus, drive, self confidence, respect.

What can you do to become more punctual?

Here are some suggestions that you could try out:

1. Acknowledge the problem and commit to change

Making a change involves a fundamental shift in your behaviour and approach. For this to work, you first need to acknowledge that there is really something wrong with not being on time. And that this holds for all your commitments; it is not something that you will do selectively. Because the more senior you are, the less likely you are to get pulled up on this. So you need to be the one to hold yourself accountable.

2. Keep a time diary

If the root of your problem is that you aren’t able to correctly ascertain how long things take, then what you need is a reality check. I came across a great tip for this – try keeping a time diary. At the start of the day, note down how long you think it will take you to do different things. This could be getting dressed and leaving home, driving to work, responding to emails, your different meetings, your workout at the gym, reaching dinner, time at a movie. Then, as the day progresses, note down how long it really took you to do all of this. And see the difference. If you do this over a week, you will see the patterns emerge.

3. Schedule, schedule, schedule

There is no shortcut to this. You just need to get much better at scheduling your time. Don’t double book meetings. Just be ruthless with your calendar. Account for travel time between meetings. Be firm about starting and ending meetings on time, so that you don’t end up throwing your schedule off track. Prioritise and accept only commitments that you can really stick to. Be disciplined about this. It may mean that you need to get better at saying no and delegating.

4. Build in buffer time

If you’re headed out, plan to reach 15 minutes early. That is usually a good enough thumb rule to follow. It helps in case there are contingencies en route. And if you reach early, you can always use that time to prep or catch up on something. But this won’t work if you start thinking of these 15 minutes as a buffer that you can use to start out later – much like having your watch be ahead of time. You need to stick to your routine and your buffer time.

5. Allow yourself regular breaks

Don’t block every available slot on your calendar. Give yourself some breathing space between meetings. You can use this to catch up on email or calls, or just as quiet time. You need this space. It’s when you don’t factor this in, that you end up trying to squeeze it in anyway and get distracted from your other commitments.

6. Use technology

There are several apps available to help you schedule your time better, set reminders, map and plan travel, get real time updates on traffic etc. There are also collaborative solutions that may even do away with the need for some of your meetings. Find something that works for you and use it.

7. Pass it on

As committed as you may be to this change, it will be difficult to pull it off unless you get people around you to do so as well. So, talk to your team members and agree on ground rules, like scheduling and sticking to meeting timings.

As the story goes, George Washington’s obsession with punctuality extended to meal timings as well. He used to dine at 4 o’clock sharp each day. Often, he would invite members of Congress to meals. If they were late, the would find him already dining or finishing up. His response to their surprise would be, “We are punctual here. My cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has come.” Maybe we should take a cue from that!

As a leadership team, we really need to walk the talk on punctuality. There is a huge difference that we can we make, not just to the way we work, but also how our teams work.

To borrow from the slogan of Indigo Airlines – On time is a wonderful thing – indeed!

I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.


  • Samir Suryawanshi says:

    Hi Vivek, one key observation I have made in my short career is if one respects others, one will also respect other people’s time and hence be punctual. Thanks for blogging on this much neglected and underestimated topic of professional and personal life.

  • Sanjeet Singh Gujral says:

    Brilliantly written, Vivek. I for one find it very difficult to manage time and as you correctly pointed get distracted from innumerable ‘gnats’ that keep cropping up time and again. I definitely respect other people’s time and want them to respect mine too. Hence, for starters, will follow your advice on keeping a time diary. Thanks again. Cheers!

  • S. Srinivasan says:

    Hi Vivek
    An appropriate article which i hope many in leading corporates will read.


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