The Psychology of Being a Chronically Late Person, According to Comedian Tim Urban

Chronically late people don't mean any harm—they're just insane.

june 2016 aol service feature late clockTravis Rathbone for Reader's Digest

My friend Andrew recently sent me a link to a story titled “Optimistic People All Have One Thing in Common: They’re Always Late.”

Intriguing. Nothing’s better than the headline “The Reason People Are [bad quality that describes you] Is Actually Because They’re [good quality].” I got to reading. And it turns out late people are actually the best people ever.

They’re optimistic and hopeful:

“They believe they can fit more tasks into a limited amount of time than other people and thrive when they’re multitasking. Simply put, they’re fundamentally hopeful.”

They think big:

“People who are habitually late don’t sweat the small stuff; they concentrate on the big picture and see the future as full of infinite possibilities.”

Late people just get it:

“People with a tendency for tardiness like to stop and smell the roses … Life was never meant to be planned down to the last detail. That signifies an inability to enjoy the moment.”

By the end of the article, I had never felt prouder to be a chronically late person.

But wait … Late people are the worst. It’s the quality I like least in myself. And I’m not late because I like to smell the roses or because I can see the big picture or because the future is full of infinite possibilities.

I’m late because I’m insane.

The issue is that there are two kinds of lateness:

1) OK lateness. This is when the late person being late does not negatively affect anyone else—like being late to a group hangout or a party. Things can start on time and proceed as normal with or without the late person.

2) Not-OK lateness. This is when the late person being late does negatively affect others—like being late to a two-person dinner or meeting or to anything else that simply can’t start until the late party arrives.

When it comes to people who are chronically not-OK late, I think there are two subgroups:

Group 1) Those who don’t feel bad about it. These people are @#$%^&s.

Group 2) Those who feel terrible about it and are filled with self-loathing. These people have problems.

While both groups of not-OK-late people end up regularly frustrating others, punctual people tend to misunderstand Group 2, whom I’ll call CLIPs (Chronically Late Insane Persons). A reliable identifier of CLIPs is a bizarre compulsion to defeat themselves—some deep inner drive to inexplicably miss the beginning of movies, endure psychotic stress while running to catch the train, crush their own reputations at work, etc. As much as they may hurt others, they hurt themselves even more.

I come from a long line of CLIPs. I spent around 15 percent of my youth standing on some sidewalk alone, angrily kicking rocks because yet again, all the other kids had gotten picked up and I was still waiting for my mom. When she finally arrived, she always felt terrible. She has problems.

My sister once missed a flight, so they rescheduled her for the following morning. She managed to miss that one, too, so they put her on a flight five hours later. Killing time during the layover, she got distracted on a long phone call and missed that flight too. She has problems.

I’ve been a CLIP my whole life. I’ve made a bunch of friends mad at me, and I’ve embarrassed myself again and again in professional situations. I’m sure each CLIP is insane in his or her own special way. For me, it’s some mix of these three odd traits:

I’m Late Because I’m in Denial About How Time Works

No matter how many times the CLIP has done a certain activity, what he or she remembers is that one time when things went the quickest. And that amount of time is what sticks in his or her head as how long that thing takes. I don’t think there’s anything that will get me to internalize that packing for a weeklong trip takes 20 minutes. In my head, it’s eternally a five-minute task. You just take out the bag, throw some clothes in it, throw your toiletries in, zip it up, and done. Five minutes. The empirical data that show that there are actually a lot of little things to think about when you pack and that it takes 20 minutes every time are irrelevant.

I’m Late Because I Have a Weird Aversion to Changing Circumstances

When I’m at home working, I hate when there’s something on my schedule that I have to stop everything to go outside and do. It’s not that I hate the activity—once I’m there, I’m often pleased. I have an irrational resistance to the transition.


I’m Late Because I’m Mad at Myself

The worse I feel about my productivity that day, the more likely I am to be late. When I’m pleased with how I’ve lived the day so far, the Rational Decision Maker in me has a much easier time taking control of the wheel. I feel like an adult, so it’s easy to act like an adult. But on days when I get nothing done, my brain throws a little tantrum, saying, “No! You didn’t do what you were supposed to do, and now you’ll sit here and get more done, even if it makes you late.”

So yeah, that’s why I’m late— I’m insane. Don’t excuse the CLIPs in your life—it’s not OK, and they need to fix it—but remember, it’s not about you. They have problems.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest