How I Finally Stopped Being Late for Everything

I'm not exaggerating when I say a crash course in time management totally changed my life.

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When I was a kid, my dad pastored a church that was right next door to our house. And yet every Sunday, I was the last one there — usually at least a few minutes after the service was supposed to start. I laughed when the greeters pointed to their watches, but honestly, I was embarrassed. It didn't matter how hard I tried. I couldn't be on time.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. I'm still late and still humiliated — and old enough now that I worry about dying one day from the stress.

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That's why I called Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out, for help. "Are you generally late by the same amount of time, or does it differ?" she asked. It varies — usually between five and 15 minutes — though I'm not sure why that matters. Apparently, though, people who are consistently late by the same amount of time often have deeply rooted reasons for doing so, she says. They don't want to be on time, perhaps because they hate being the first one to arrive or making small talk with strangers.

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Me? I'd kill to be the first one at brunch or the office, eager to greet friends and coworkers when they arrived. For a while, I thought I was always late because I'm so hard to wake up in the morning — but even after I wrangled my sleep habits, I still wasn't on time. I realized then that it was never really a morning thing at all: I'm late for afternoon movies and dinner dates, too. Not late late — just miss-a-couple-previews late. The kind of late that drives my husband Nathan crazy.

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"Your problem isn't a psychological one, but a technical one," Morgenstern tells me. "You're really bad at estimating how long things take." It's a skill I can work on in the mornings, which can then translate to other parts of my life, she adds. No more rushing to meet deadlines or staying up late on Sunday night because I wait too long to pay bills. Score!

Here are the steps she laid out to help me get there:

1. Change your definition of "on time."

"Punctual people don't think of 'on time' as the point at which something starts. On time, to them, is 10 or 15 minutes early," Morgenstern says. In other words, I need to aim to leave my apartment a lot sooner than I usually do.

2. Clear the clutter.

After I outlined a typical day in my life, Morgenstern quickly realized that my mornings are packed with things I shouldn't be doing, like picking out my clothes and steaming them. "Do those tasks the night before — it'll take less time when you're not under pressure," she says. She also suggests having a conversation with Nathan about how we'll split household chores. He's a huge help in the morning, but he sometimes runs out of time to fill the dog and cat's water bowls, for example — and I need consistency.

3. Build in distractions.

I also admitted to Morgenstern that I sometimes mindlessly check my phone in the mornings, thumbing through Twitter or The New York Times for breaking news. She recommends setting aside 15 minutes for those types of distractions, either before I start getting ready or somewhere in the middle. When time's up, I should leave my phone in another room until I'm ready to walk out the door.

4. Time everything.

"You can't re-engineer anything until you have all of the pieces in front of you," Morgenstern says. She suggests timing each step of my morning routine, from applying makeup to taking the dog outside, then adding it all up to see how much time I actually need in the morning. I'm surprised to see how many seconds I lose to small things — washing my hands before and after putting my contacts in, bringing essentials in and out of the closet because our bathroom is short on counter space. In the end, it takes me roughly 80 minutes to do it all, and that's without the extra stuff I've eliminated from my routine. "You were only giving yourself 90 minutes before. Now you see why you're having trouble," she says.

My first days at work after the time trials were a real test: I woke up on Monday morning feeling headache-y and had to lay back down. The next day, I had to drop the dog off at the groomers and get Nathan's glasses repaired before work. Either scenario would usually derail my morning, but instead, I shaved 10 minutes off my routine by swapping the blow dryer for dry shampoo and actually made it to work early. The following morning I made both stops and still walked into the office on time.

But that's not the only thing I've learned: To my surprise, this little experiment made me adaptable. At my parents' home for Thanksgiving, it finally came full circle. Ten minutes before church was scheduled to start, I stood at the front door of the house, coat and shoes on, bag in hand. "Mom, are you ready?" I called up the stairs. She appeared from her room a few minutes later, clearly confused. "I've been working on it," I explained.

"I'm so proud!" she joked. Me, too, mom. Me, too.

From: Redbook
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