Many people like to equate time with money. There is a lot of truth to that notion, such as the time value of money, being able to use one's time to earn money, opportunity costs, and so forth. I think many of these concepts make sense when the issue is between a person and a project, such as an investment decision or a question of how I allocate my time and resources among many different projects.
However, when the issue is between two people, I think an additional useful notion is, "Time Is Respect."
At the most basic level, what I mean by this phrase is that being punctual and showing consideration for people's time is a form of basic respect. Even small dents in this respect can, over time and many instances, erode a relationship considerably.
When two people choose to work together, there are actually three entities involved: the two individuals and the one project. If either person feels disrespected, even slightly, the project is likely to suffer. In addition, it is rare that two people in this world who collaborate or work together will only do so once. In fact, many people hope to build relationships and friendships that can be mutually beneficial over people's entire lifetimes. Therefore, it's likely that the long-term damage to the relationship caused by disrespect will be a lot more harmful than the short-term damage to productivity on the current project at hand.
Here's an example: Two professionals meet up to research a new business idea. One of them is late several times by a few minutes, and that slowly becomes the normal course of affairs. While they may not get as much done on their current project as they would like, the person who is always waiting will slowly lose faith in his or her colleague and will be less likely, even if subconsciously, to want to work with that colleague again on other projects in the future.
Some people might say, "Who cares? It's just five minutes. Chill-ax." Sure. It is just five minutes. For some ultra-busy professionals, every five minutes counts. For moderately busy people, I think the effect is still important as five minutes at each weekly meeting, for example, can quickly add up to a lot of lost productivity, loneliness, and subconscious dissatisfaction with the other person.
I often hear of various groups of people or races or entire countries where the culture is one of lateness. People say things like, "The party started at 7? Oh, he's on ______ Standard Time" (fill in the blank with your own race/background). I think that in certain situations lateness is not that big of a deal, like in some social gatherings where it's explicit that no actual special events will happen for a matter of hours. However, I think it's important for everyone to know this ahead of time and agree. If hosts of parties were more explicit in telling everyone when the party will open versus when important events (like a seated dinner) will actually happen, then more guests are likely to be on time when it matters. Nonetheless, I still think that blaming tardiness on race or culture is just an easy excuse because if there weren't others in that culture or group who were punctual, the entire conversation about why someone was late would never happen.
I'll close with some tips and some personal time management practices that help me be on time when it matters and also, as a side benefit, help me be more productive and efficient in getting my own work done. If others have suggestions of what works for them, I'd love to hear them.
Tips and Personal Practices
- Use a calendar with reminders and recurring appointments: Every recurring appointment goes into my calendar, so I never forget the regular events I have going on. In addition, every meeting I plan with other people goes in there too. I'm talking about 100% of them, no matter how small. Also, put in events that are reminders for you to do something at a certain time of the day, even if it's not a formal, fixed meeting. For example, if you have to cook dinner, put in a reminder at 5pm to cook it if it needs to be ready by 6pm. If you need to call someone who works 3 hours ahead of your timezone, put in an event on your calendar in the morning to call that person.
Every event should have an associated reminder so that it pops up on your phone or computer and reminds you to do it. 90% of the time you already know to do that item, but it is the 10% that you forget on difficult days that will save you.
Use a system that is easy and quick for you to input things so that there are as few psychological barriers to your using the system as possible. (A lot of this advice is from the great book Getting Things Done, but these were my practices even before reading that, so I definitely agree with a lot of the GTD method.)
Every evening, take a look at your calendar for the next day, and in the morning, look at it again to make a mental plan of where you need to go, what keys you need, etc. Make sure all the addresses and phone numbers you might need are inside the notes of the events. This will save you tons of time and headache on the road; it's much faster to look up an address or directions on the computer than on your phone.
Here is the system I use: I used to use Microsoft Outlook, but I switched to Google Calendar because I can edit it anywhere, and it continuously syncs (push) with my phone.
- Don't schedule meetings with people when they are very busy or try to get "squeezed in." When people have very, very busy days, any lateness on either party's side will likely make the meeting very short, extra-stressful, and unproductive. If someone is traveling and back for just a day between two trips, wait until they're done traveling and settled in. Yes, if it's an emergency and very time-critical, you can express that to the other person and let them decide if it makes sense to meet on a busy day or not. Similarly, when you are managing your schedule, try to space out meetings or keep dedicated time to yourself each day to get your work done uninterrupted so that you can be focused on your meetings and on your work when you need to be.
- Over-communicate on tardiness, expected tardiness, and cancellations. If you have the slightest fear of being late, give people a heads up. Tell them you're on your way and there's traffic, and your ETA is 10 minutes. Tell them you're parking and walking over. Usually people will be happier to hear some extra information so they can use the free time to read or make a phone call than be annoyed to get an extra text message from you about your status.
If you need to cancel and reschedule a meeting, do it early and don't do it too much. If you constantly reschedule, it shows the other person that they're probably not a high priority. Mark Suster has an excellent post on meeting cancellations here.
- Treat non-realtime communications media with as much care for punctuality as realtime ones. By non-realtime, I mean email and voicemail. I'll go into those topics more in depth in separate future blog posts, but for now, I'll address how they relate to punctuality.
When people send you a message and ask you for help, they have an idea in mind of how long it will take you to respond. Responding as fast as you can (when it's important) goes without saying, but sometimes you're just not able to respond in the time frame the other person expects. Following some more GTD advice, I like to respond to all inquiries that will take me a minute or two immediately. For all other cases that will take me a bit of time, I like to tell the other person how long I expect it to take me to respond and then follow through with my promise. In my interactions with other professionals, there are so few people who I have seen do this that it shocks me. I hate to constantly follow up, and I would never want to put others in the same situation. Even if you aren't able to meet your promised time frame, just send another message with an updated status.
By communicating openly and honestly about one's status and efforts at completing a project for someone else, you'll be able to get away with taking a bit longer but without the loss of respect that comes with just taking your own sweet time. The key is setting appropriate expectations so that there is as little disconnect as possible between your own plans and what others around you expect.
- Leave earlier than you normally would. If you're a person who is often late, set yourself reminders to get ready and leave 25% earlier than you normally would. Figure out how long it takes you on average to get ready (e.g., one hour from desk to car including showering, dressing, etc.), and add a fifteen minute cushion. By leaving 10-20 minutes earlier than normal, you'll feel calmer and happier while driving without speeding (which will be safer and cheaper in the long run). You'll also get to your destination in time to be punctual and perhaps even to explore and feel more prepared.
Treat meetings with others as if they're a final exam in school or you're giving a speech to a large audience; you would get to those types of things with lots of time to spare, you would plan ahead what you need to bring and how early to leave, and you would force yourself to stop whatever you're doing to start getting ready and to leave on time. By practicing those same habits in other less-extreme situations, they'll become a lot easier and more natural to do always.