I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date…
There are reasons some people simply can’t keep to time.
An old girlfriend of mine had this irritating habit of just doing ‘one more thing’ before going anywhere, which is why she was destined never to get anywhere and why she became my ex-girlfriend… or my late girlfriend as I used to call her but more about that later.
In the unlikely event that you’re reading this Alexis, you were the most unreliable and infuriating person I ever met and being with you was the worst two weeks of my entire life. You had obviously succeeded in turning lateness into a virtue. I truly believe you had a Ph.D. in being late, which probably explains why you could never hold down a job and why you had no friends.
You see, we all need structure in our lives and so most of us have the ability to estimate time – how long things will take, how long it takes to get somewhere, how much traffic one can expect, and so on.
There are ways to break the habit of lateness, including not giving into the temptation of doing ‘one more thing’ before you have to be somewhere… you selfish, self-absorbed, always-late, waste of time.
But some scientists at Washington University have just proved to me that it wasn’t actually your fault after all. How utterly selfish of me to think it was – even when I was sat in the restaurant wondering where you were, not knowing if you were alive or dead.
You see, chronic lateness is due to a problem with someone’s Time-Based Prospective Memory (TBPM.) It’s a fancy lah-de-dah expression for when your memory is jogged by a time-related cue – for example, when you need to get to the airport by 11am, remembering to occasionally glance at your watch. For most people, this is not too difficult.
Anyway, by studying the time management strategies of older and younger adults, the scientists found that some people are better at estimating time than others. Even so, there are ways to break the habit of always being late – including not doing just ‘one more thing’ before you have to catch a plane.
The researchers tested for TBPM by giving some volunteers a task to perform and a specific amount of time in which to complete it. During the test, he volunteers had the option of checking a clock before the time ran out.
While it may seem like most people would check the clock, the experiment was designed in such a way that the complexity of the task was increased, causing the participants to become engrossed in it. In other words, it was just like the time when, instead of packing your case, you allowed yourself to get distracted by suddenly deciding to do your make-up – something not as important as getting to the gate before they close the flight and no longer allow you to get on the plane.
Well, it turns out that people who are better at TBPM tasks are better at remembering to check the clock. Remember how you used to go on at me for looking at my watch?
OK, checking your watch is only one way to be on time. You see, it’s also important to be able to estimate how long it takes to get from one place to another – accounting for potential problems like getting stuck in traffic. Remember that? I was swearing and constantly checking my watch, and you were listening to Westlife and filing your nails at the same time. Multitasking you said it was, although as it turned out, multitasking wasn’t going to help us get to the airport any quicker.
Anyway, the boffins devised some fiendishly clever experiments to prove that listening to music and doing your nails at the same time makes you forget to check the time. Who would have thought it?
In the first experiment, some volunteers were given a set of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ style questions to answer, and they had to estimate how long it would take to complete them. While they answered the questions, either no songs, or some songs were played.
This was to find out whether the volunteers who listened to songs would lose track of time while completing the quiz (you would have been good at this) and whether listening to fewer songs caused them to be more aware of the time.
In the second experiment, the volunteers were asked to do a jigsaw puzzle. They were told that after getting as far as they could with the puzzle, they would have 20 minutes to complete the quiz. They had to finish the quiz and push a button after 20 minutes had elapsed. In other words, they had to manage their time doing the puzzle to have enough time left over to complete the quiz. (You would have been totally terrible at this, and it brings a smile to my face when I think about it)
Anyway, the very clever scientists found that some people are better at estimating time than others, and that playing music had an impact on the time-awareness of younger people. But they also found that younger people checked the time more than older adults.
So the main factor affecting people being too early or too late was their ability to estimate time. According to the research, there are three things you can do that can help reduce ones own time estimation bias… or rude and inconsiderate as some other scientists would say.
The first is to simply check the time every so often. The second is to construct a strategy for getting things done. This involves a bit of common sense and planning ahead of time how long each part of doing something will take.
The third is to resist the temptation to do ‘one more thing’ – in your case, losing track of time in the Duty Free area – before you suddenly remember you have to be at the gate. That way, you won’t get stranded in Morocco without a passport or your ticket. I hope you managed to get home eventually, because I didn’t actually hear from you again.