5 Minutes Early Is On Time,
On Time Is Late,
And That’s Ok


Two and a half years ago I wrote an article for Forbes that went viral with over 1.6 million views. It was titled, “5 Minutes Early Is On Time; On Time Is Late; Late Is Unacceptable.” Here was the crux of my argument:

“All joking aside, being late is unacceptable. While that sounds harsh, it’s the truth and something that should be said more often. I don’t care if you’re attending a dinner party, a conference call, or a coffee meeting - your punctuality says a lot about you.”

Clearly the article touched a nerve. A majority of the feedback was laudatory. Some of the responses were brutal. The article comments ranged from, “YES! You nailed it. Thank you,” to “You are a miserable human being and I hope you die.” (Actually, they get much worse than that.)

As I look back on the article, I realize how much my perspective has changed. Do I still prioritize being on time? Absolutely. Do I still appreciate it when others are on time? Of course. But my anxiety towards timeliness is dramatically less and my attitude on the topic is much changed.

Time prioritizes. That which is a priority receives time, while the less important get the time table scraps. If you prioritize entertainment, there’s a good chance TV, video games, and social media will be central to your life. If you prioritize work, you’ll work more hours. If you prioritize relationships, they’ll get your time. We spend on what’s important, and time is the ultimate currency.

Punctuality is the leading edge of time and being late indicates an order of priority. If one activity gets more time than expected, something has to give. The opportunity cost, tardiness and potentially less time, indicates a choice was made. It’s always a signal. The question is what to do with that signal.

Being on the receiving end of tardiness used to be a major source of frustration, hence the article. It made me feel unimportant, dismissed, and disrespected. These days I largely just roll with it. Timeliness is merely one piece of information in a complicated world. Sometimes it’s an important marker, while other times it’s irrelevant. The better my relationships, the less timeliness matters, because I’m not guessing about the intention.

While it’s easy to make inferences, I try to remember Hanlon’s Razor: Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. Tardiness is rarely intentional, which makes the recipient irrelevant. People are busy, distracted, and trying their best.

In some cases, being late is perfectly acceptable. Emergencies happen. Circumstances can be out of your hands. When push comes to shove, sometimes commitments should be reprioritized.

Taking things less personally has been an anxiety killer. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not important. I shouldn’t command a slavish devotion to timeliness. I’m not a big deal. There’s great freedom in self-forgetfulness.