Is Your License Plate ‘L84AD8’?

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On those days when a long workout is planned, I get up extra early to make breakfast, sit and chat with my husband for a few minutes and pack myself off to the gym.

I love my mornings, and the promise of coffee and the newspaper. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that even though I may set the alarm back a few minutes each day, I still rarely make it out the front door without a last minute rush and a feeling of dread that I might be minute or two late.

When I started paying attention to my own tardiness, I discovered that there had not been a lot of research on chronic lateness in the psychological journals. It seemed as though the subject was divided into at least two kinds of late people who I call the Benignly Belated and the Obtusely Overdue.

This sliding scale starts with the person who is unavoidably rushed due to an overbooked and demanding lifestyle. The B.B. is likely to be an optimistic person, who indulges in some magical thinking about how many things can be done within a certain amount of time. Lots of us fall into and out of this category – we are consumed with a project and reluctant to leave it undone in order to meet another deadline. The happy intention is to do it all, but the result of not doing the hard work of making difficult choices of what to leave undone results in becoming a latecomer.

Our waiting room is a place where some people can be seen racing in at the last minute, while others sit placidly reading a magazine before the start of their session. Being late has special meaning in a therapist’s office – because it gets talked about in such way that if it is a problem, we look for solutions.

We have had a lot of success with a few simple interventions for Benignly Belated people. One is the kitchen timer. Almost every kitchen has one, and we asked people to assign a specific amount of time, in minutes, for all of their tasks – including showering, watching television, or being on their computers. The number of minutes assigned could change any time the person wished, but it had to be before they set the time, not after. There were lots of surprises about how long many activities took, but all the patients who “obeyed” their timers and went on to the next thing they had planned were able to quickly cure their time troubles.

The second remedy is to Welcome the Wait. We find that lots of our patients shun empty minutes, and would rather be a minute late than wait for five. We encourage people to begin to savor their wait times and to come prepared with reading for fun, manuscripts to proofread, or to just close their eyes and meditate for a few minutes. This has helped give people a few minutes of built-in relaxation in their days, and is a great defense against tardiness.

The Obtusely Overdue is a problem for himself and for others who are in relationship with him. Being on time ranks up there with sharing your toys as first-learned lessons of elementary school. That’s where we first came in contact with the word “tardy” and learned that a note from a parent was required to explain where we were when that bell rang.

As adults, though, a note from Mom can’t fix dawdling disasters. The O.O. does not typically come to therapy asking for help with being more on time. We receive calls from the Obtuse’s husband or best friends. They want to know how to live with someone who is an hour late coming home, or who leaves them waiting at the restaurant for 20 minutes before rushing in. O.O.’s often think it is up to other people to be more understanding, to be less hard on them, or to give them slack because they have such busy lives.

It is the Obtusely Overdue person whose reasons for being late are unconscious and out of our direct line of sight. They often have a need to proclaim that they won’t be told what to do. They resist having the authority of a deadline placed on them, and strain to get along by pushing the deadline a little or a lot.

It’s up to the loved ones or those in relationship of any kind with an O.O. to take care of themselves. They need to decide how long they are willing to keep supper on the table, sit in the car waiting, or watching their screen for signs of that PDF. After announcing their intentions to the Overdue person, they have to stick to their guns, leaving the restaurant or getting into the cab for the airport. It’s only when people allow themselves and their schedules to be abused by O.O. that things start to crumble.



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