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February 3, 2015

Why your one coworker is always late for everything

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on February 28, 2018.

The reason behind some people's chronic tardiness may be simple: They consistently underestimate the amount of time a task at hand will take, Sumathi Reddy writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Why are some people always late?

According to Reddy, the behavioral pattern—known as planning fallacy—can be frustrating but difficult to change. Roger Buehler, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, says people on average underestimate task-completion time by about 40%. 

"There are all sorts of disincentives and punishments for being late, and the paradox is we're late even when those punishments and consequences exist," says Justin Kruger, a social psychologist and marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. He adds, "This is a judgment that you'd think that people would be motivated to get right."

Different personality types can also account for why some people are more punctual than others.

According to research published in 2001 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, people with Type B or more "laid back" personalities were found to be late more often. In previous studies, Type A individuals, or those driven by outcomes and a fast-paced workspace, predicted one minute had passed in 58 seconds, compared with 77 seconds for those with Type B personalities. The 2001 study authors commented, "If you have an 18-second gap...that difference can add up over time."

Meanwhile, a study published in Human Performance found that multitaskers were also more likely to be late.

In addition, employees with young children and those with poor job satisfaction are also more likely to be tardy, as well as individuals who suffer from issues like ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or mild cognitive impairment.

How to break the cycle

Employees who are chronically late can slow down workplace efficiency and complicate the completion of even menial tasks. However, the authors of several studies on the subject have offered strategies for individuals looking to overcome this issue.

For instance, a 2004 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that individuals who "unpack" a task—or break it down into its component parts, detailing the steps they will have to take along the way—are more likely to accurately predict the time it would take to complete a task.

Similarly, a 2012 study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes determined that people who can mentally picture how an outside observer would view the task are more likely to predict accurately how long the task will take.

Implementing a personal or office-wide reward system—such as no social media browsing until a certain amount of work is done—could be another strategy to cut down on tardiness. Also, Lisa Bernstein, a clinical social worker, advocates breaking weekly calendars down into 30-minute increments because it can help individuals more accurately determine how long tasks will take (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 2/2).

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