Being on time is important to me. I don’t like to miss out on things, break my promise or keep others waiting. But it has also proven to be a struggle. By thinking differently about being on time and its three elements, you never have to be late again.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

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I always underestimate how much time it takes me to get home. When I am about to leave the office at five o’clock, I will consult Google Maps to estimate my estimated time of arrival (ETA). Google Maps shows it is a 45 minute drive. So I will add that to the current time and text my wife my ETA is 17:45 hours. However, I always seem to overshoot my ETA and walk into my home just before 18:00 hours. I find myself being late at the squash court as well, underestimating how much time it takes from the moment I decide to leave until I step onto the court. How does that happen?

Being on time requires three elements to work in harmony. First, you must be able to make accurate time estimations of the tasks you need to complete (time estimation). Second, you must be able plan these tasks effectively (time management). Finally, you must be able to execute your plan (plan execution).

Time estimation

When making time estimations, we often fall prey to the time estimation bias: we often display too much optimism when planning a future task. This may lead us to overestimate our abilities in completing the tasks and underestimate the time it takes to complete these tasks. For example, when I cycle to the squash courts – which in theory should be an 8 minute trip – I overestimate my abilities to collect my gear and change into my gear once I arrive. I also underestimate the time it takes to complete taking my bike out of the shed, parking and locking my bike. Essentially I neglect these small tasks as if they take no time at all. So in reality it takes me around 25 minutes to get onto the squash court from the moment I start to collect my gear.

Moreover, I am often convinced that the error rate of my predictions is smaller than it actually is. Sometimes I can find my gear very quickly, at other times I have to retrieve it from the pile with freshly washed clothes in the laundry room. Sometimes I can smoothly retrieve my bike from the shed, at other times I have to add air to my bicycle tires before I can leave. Thus, I should invest more effort to take into account the variability in our time estimations.

Time management

Previous research demonstrated that people estimate how long it will take to complete future tasks by considering how long the same or similar tasks have taken to complete in the past. However, such time perceptions are subjective; the same amount of time may be perceived differently in the past than today. You may remember that time seemed to pass more slowly in the past compared to the passing of time today. Perception of time is likely related to how long we have lived. So a year to a four year old has a ratio of 1:4 (25% of their lifetime), which explains why it seems much more time has passed than for a 20 year old, which has a ratio of 1:20 (5% of their lifetime).

Emily Waldum and Mark McDaniel from Washington University investigated the factors that influenced time management. The main reason people in their experiments were too early or too late was their time estimation bias. To get themselves where they needed to be at the right time, they needed to keep their internal clock aligned.

In their experiment participants had to estimate the duration of several trivia tasks. While completing the trivia task, participants heard either zero, two, or four familiar pop songs playing in the background. The idea behind the music was that participants who heard these pop songs could use these songs to estimate time duration. The results suggest that these songs helped participants to make more accurate time estimates. So it can help you to use environmental cues for time estimations, especially if you think you’re not very good at estimating time. I personally listen to the radio all day and use the half-hourly news updates to keep a sense of how much time has passed.

Plan execution

Even if your time estimates are correct, a plan will only allow you to be on time if the plan is executed successfully. Failure to execute a plan may arise for a number of reasons. First, a plan may not be followed simply because it is forgotten. For example, after I have texted my wife that I will be home at 17:45, I run into a colleague and engage in a lively discussion, and I forget about my plan until it is 45 minutes later.

Second, a plan may not be followed because of poor time monitoring. In the discussion with my colleague, time flies and where I thought we had just been talking for 5 minutes, already 45 minutes have passed. Third, other tasks will interfere with executing the plan, such as answering one more email. Responding to this email receives priority over the plan of going home.

How to Never Be Late Again

Check the clock. There’s no need to try to time your tasks on your own. If you need to follow a tight schedule because of consecutive meetings or classes, keep track of time using your watch or sit opposite to a clock. Looking at your watch may feel rude but is less rude than being late and making someone wait for you. Don’t use your phone as a way of keeping track of time, because you most likely get distracted by other notifications on your phone. Also, looking at your phone probably feels more rude than looking at your watch for the other person, because the other person might infer that you are paying attention to other tasks than the conversation. So if you don’t own a watch, you should consider buying one.

Consider what could possibly go wrong. There are two ways to improve your accuracy in time estimations. The first thing you can do is to do a premortem: you imagine that you are in the future and implemented the plan as it now exists. You imagine that the outcome was a disaster and then you take 5-10 minutes to come up with a brief history of that disaster. This may help you identify the key things that might go wrong and allow you to fix them. The other thing you can do is to ask others: you ask other people to make their own time estimations. Don’t ask them how long it will take them, but how long they think it wil take you to compete the project.

Create a strategy for being on time. You should set a realistic deadline and then probably add a buffer to that. Some suggest adding 20 percent to your estimated time. I personally like to add a little more, so I under-promise and over-deliver. If Google Maps estimates a 45 minute drive to get home, I add 15 minutes buffer and always be on time. Creating a good strategy also means don’t do “one more thing” before you have to leave. I still struggle with that. I do decide upfront how long each activity will take, but still finish that one email before I leave and that make me late again. If you know any remedies, please let me know.

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Photo by Black ice via Pexels


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