Punctuality and learned helplessness.

One of my less formal resolutions this year was to be on time for things.

I’m one of those perennially tardy folk for whom the passage of time, as a concept, never seems to sink in. I will look at a clock, see that I have 15 minutes to get somewhere, and yet convince myself that I have 10 more minutes to do whatever it is that I am doing because time is relative, right?

The other day, I was 20 minutes late meeting a friend for breakfast because I finished my book and then spent 15 minutes contemplating my bookshelf, thinking about what I would begin reading later that day.

Given how much I’ve travelled, it’s a miracle I’ve never missed a flight—although I came close the other day, when I left my house at 2:00pm to catch a 3:30 flight.

I care a lot about punctuality. I feel guilty when I keep people waiting, and I feel stressed when I know I’m running behind. Being late basically says to another person: my time is more important than your time. That’s obviously rude, and I don’t mean to treat people that way, so I’ve tried very hard at different times to change my behavior. Yet of the various habits I have acquired and broken over the years, this has been the hardest to shake off.

I think one of the greatest barriers to overcome for most perennially tardy people is the realization that perfect punctuality is impossible. Many habits are built on the ability to maintain a streak. Yet there are too many external factors affecting whether or not one is on time for it to be entirely in your control. As a tardy person trying to change my habits, this often feels cosmically unjust: dear universe, I’m trying my best, WHY MUST YOU THWART ME?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?

This is essentially a form of learned helplessness: I’m trying to be on time, but even given my good intentions, circumstances outside my control keep making me fail. Given this, why try to be on time at all? Why not accept fate?

But the truth is that, while I cannot predict or counteract some unexpected delays, I can do a lot to lower the frequency at which they cause me to be late.

As an example:

  • Let’s say your regular commute is 15 minutes in perfect conditions. Let’s say that you hit perfect conditions about 50% of the time.
  • Maybe another 40% the time, some delay due to road conditions or an unlucky confluence of traffic lights causes a 5 minute delay.
  • Perhaps 8% of the time, unusually bad delays cause up to a 10-minute delay.
  • 2% of the time, catastrophe strikes and the roads are blocked or something and you have a more-than-10-minute delay.

Now, let’s say most people don’t care about a 5-minute delay. (I don’t think they do.) If, as a perennially tardy person, I take advantage of that by allowing myself to be constantly 5 minutes late, then by this scheme I will be noticeably late half the time. (And remember: Even though most people don’t notice if you’re only 5 minutes late, they will still begin measuring your absence from minute 0. You can’t excuse 10 minutes late as being only 5 minutes late from being 5 minutes late.)

On the other hand, let’s say I’m trying to always be 5 minutes early. According to these same conditions, not only will I be either early or exactly punctual 90% of the time, but even if something unusually bad happens which causes a 10-minute delay, I’ll still be within that 5 minute zone of easy excusal. This means that only 2% of the time, and for the most catastrophic reasons, would I be noticeably late.

Thus, the difference between “nobody will notice if I’m five minutes late” and “I must always strive to be 5 minutes early” is the difference between “I am noticeably and reprehensibly late at least 50% of the time” and “I am punctual or within an acceptable margin of error 98% of the time.”

I know this is true, because (like with catching my flights) I’ve almost always on time for absolutely critical occasions. So in order to be more punctual more often, all I need to do is expand my definition of absolutely critical occasions.

Sounds like I’ve sorted my punctuality problem and put learned helplessness in its place. Now I’ve only got to make sure I stick to it.

3 Replies to “Punctuality and learned helplessness.”

    1. Thanks! Yes, but it’s a long story! I think I got it off a box of Bigalow tea, and at one point I planned to write a web comic and use it for that, but then it became my blog. Now I’m attached to it, but in many ways it’s a funny match.

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