How To Stop Being Late To Work

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about being late to work: 

In the past I have had a problem coming to work late. Is there anything I can do to fix this? When I get up in the morning, sometimes I have a hard time going through my morning routine to get everything done. It’s not that I have a lot to do in the morning before I go to work, it’s just I will either spend too much time checking Facebook or just stalling around. I have been working with a wakeup call service and this seems to be helping me out a lot. Do you have any other suggestions for how to stop being late to work?

Signed, Late

Dear Late:

This is a long reply to your short question, but take the time to read it. It will help you consider several aspects of your life, not just your morning routine. You will also find that there is more to the situation than a quick answer can provide.

For example, I could say, “Get up earlier or do less extra things. Good luck!”  But, you already know that kind of simple advice. So, stick through the long response and see if you can develop new habits that will help you at home AND at work.

Realities about you being late to work: If your boss said you will be fired on the spot the next time you are late, I’ll bet you would find a way to be on time.

If your boss said you would be fined a hundred dollars for every minute you are late, you would be on time.

If you were going to get a reward of a hundred dollars for every minute you’re early, you’d be early, not just on time.

Make being on time urgent. One way to deal with punctuality is to make being on time to work a matter of urgency. If you care at all about how you are viewed by others, it IS urgent for you to completely change your timeliness. Your reputation for dependability may already be so damaged that you will have difficulty recovering it, but it’s possible to do.

The other urgent aspect about being on time is the way you feel about yourself and the pressure you add to your life. If you often find yourself looking at the clock, hoping you hit every green light, worrying about how you’re going to be viewed when you’re late again, and thinking, “Why do you do this to yourself????”, you know what I mean.

There is a clear, clean feeling about being on time and sauntering into work rather than rushing in a few minutes or a lot of minutes late. You will love the way you feel when being on time is simply the way you live your life. You will also feel better about work in general when you don’t start every day as though getting there is a painful exercise in rushing and feeling stressful.

Here are some suggestions that I promise will help.

1. Make a commitment to your manager that you won’t be late again. Whether or not the two of you have talked about it, bring up your punctuality and say that you have really worried about the impact of your lateness on others, on the manager and on the work. But, you intend to change your habits to such an extent that you will be on time or early every single work day in the future.

If you are really gutsy you can promise to have some routine morning work task done by a set time that is earlier than you usually get it done. One person I worked with made a promise to have coffee prepared three days a week, at least. Doing that required him to get to work fifteen minutes early each of those days.

That is a big commitment–and once you make it you will be watched to see if you fail. Further, you can’t just be on time every day for a few weeks, it has to be the way you do things every day in the future. But, making the commitment is an excellent way to force yourself to live up to it. Try that as your first step: Make a promise to your boss and swear you won’t disappoint him or her. Even if you don’t care much for your boss, do it. The added advantage of it is that you will be viewed much more positively, more quickly, as a result.

2. Analyze your morning routine and decide how much time you need to allow for each task. Time for getting ready for work is finite–there is only so much of it in the morning and you can’t wedge two hours of activity into forty five minutes. However, getting up earlier is rarely the answer–that just gives you the illusion that you can dawdle around. You can’t. For someone with your commitment to make a change, the only approach to take is that morning preparation time is prep time for getting to work, not for anything else. Anything else steals time and either must be eliminated or more preparation time allowed.

I once heard someone say that for those who tend to be late, the longer amount of time they perceive they have, the more likely it will be that they’ll waste it and be late anyway. That’s true! Often you’ll do better with less time, well spent.

One exercise that has proven to be valuable is for the person concerned about time  to do a real-time run through of the fundamental–not necessarily fun–things they need to do, timing each one. Note the starting time and keep track of start and stop times for: morning hygiene, exercise or other health or wellness activity, nutrition, showering, grooming, dressing, getting things together, getting to the car, having everything needed to leave, pretending to drive away.

How much time was used? What time would you need to wake up, to give you that much time, plus thirty minutes more for wiggle room, emails, texts or checking the news? You can also do this by timing yourself when you get ready for work one day, but make sure you ONLY do the crucial things, that day, none of the extras. After you have a total time needed for the crucial tasks you can see how much time more you need to allow for the other things you want to do or like to do. Consider how long you spend on each of those, on average. You’ll then know how much time is needed for the crucial basics and how much more time has to be added for extras. Then you can decide if you want to get up early enough to allow for those combined times.

The other reason that is a good exercise is that it will help you pinpoint the areas that need to be corrected. Even though it may seem obvious why you are being late, this time-logging activity can help you understand it better.

3. Decide the primary reasons you are late. You are late for one or more of these reasons: 1.) You get up too late to allow the time needed. 2.) You stay in bed too long after waking. 3.) You get involved in things that don’t keep you moving toward your goal of getting ready for work. 4.) You spend too much time on one or a few things and that time could be reduced. 5.) You spend only a necessary and reasonable amount of time on everything, but you have too many total things to do for the time allowed.

A woman who was always rushing and often late in the morning told me she wasn’t wasting time on anything and she got up early enough to allow for the things she needed to do. But somehow, she often was twenty or thirty minutes behind schedule. She finally admitted that she had a bit of a physical problem involving getting in and out of the toilet in a reasonable amount of time.  We did some research to find ways to ensure a comfortable, more healthy, more comfortable and less time-consuming toilet experience! Thirty minutes spent unpleasantly that way can ruin the start of a day!

A man told me, with a lot of apologies for the embarrassing conversation, that he was only late on the mornings when his girlfriend stayed over night. On those days he was invariably late because he stayed in bed longer than usual. He realized the alarm needed to be set early on those days (he didn’t tell me how much earlier.) He would have probably also been late if he stayed at her house, without making the needed adjustments in time.

All of that is to say, know how much time you need to allow. Few of us want to get up much earlier than needed, but thirty minutes added to the minimum time is not excessive and will be helpful. When you know that, you can move on to the next step.

While it is good that you have a wake-up service, waking up doesn’t seem to be your problem–it’s what you do after that. Use the time log you made in the first exercise. When you know how long each activity takes, you can decide what time must be reduced or eliminated. You may find you want to expand the time you’re spending on some things and are willing to reduce or eliminate other things to do it. Just make sure your priorities are on getting ready for work, nothing else.

Grooming: There is no point in saying you can shower, shampoo and do whatever personal grooming you do in 30 minutes, when you have found it almost impossible to do in less than an hour. If you are a woman, you will probably find you have to spend about 45 minutes on personal grooming and dressing, almost every morning. Sometimes less, if thing come together, sometimes more if you have to shampoo twice to get your hair right. You might not be that kind of person, but for many women even casual grooming takes about 30 to 45 minutes, for hair, make-up, clothes and re-doing it all if needed. Budget the time you need.

Eating: You should eat something, so don’t take that out of your morning schedule to save time. However, you may be able to reduce the time considerably by switching from something that requires using appliances, getting items out, cleaning up, putting away, etc. Morning drinks can be helpful. Make a good sandwich the night before, like for lunch, and eat it for breakfast while getting dressed.

Fitness: If you exercise in the morning, keep that in your schedule. If you stop that to save time, you’ll be losing something even more important-your fitness and mental and physical well-being. And, most of us feel SO self-righteous when we know we have exercised before work!

Time-wasters: That brings you to the things that are time-gobblers. These are the things that, even if you get up four hours early, you’ll be late for work if you let yourself get immersed in them: Getting on the computer, checking and responding to email, looking at Facebook, watching TV, sending and receiving text messages, talking on the phone or reading a newspaper or other item. Those are not urgent, they are merely entertainment and often they are opiates for the mind. They keep you from the chore of getting dressed and getting ready for work, but they ultimately ruin your mornings.

As you say, they are often “stalling” around activities. You know time is going by, but you don’t want to do what you need to do, so you keep scrolling and typing. Worse yet, that kind of “mindless” activity puts your brain into a fog. Keep focused on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and keep moving forward, steadily and speedily.

Set a timer: One way to reduce the time you take for non-urgent things is to set a timer. I wish email programs had a built-in timer at the top of the page, that could be set to buzz in X amount of time! You will have to do it yourself, but it will help you to do it. Decide on a very small amount of time to allow and stick to it. You probably don’t get many things in email or on Facebook that is time-urgent. Force yourself to hustle through reading and responding–or not responding if it’s not crucial right then. Many people find it easier to not turn their computers on in the morning…but most now have email and browsers available on their phones, so emails,Facebook, blogs, news and YouTube are always calling their name!

This will be a test of the kind of strength of character you have–because you may have a habit of stalling that will be very hard to break. But, you can do it. It just will take doing things differently until you develop new morning habits.

By this point you have done four things:

1. You have made a commitment to your boss and pledged to stick with it. This is all about getting ready for work, so give it the status of making it a work promise.

2. You have done an exercise to decide what crucial things must be done to get ready for work the right way, including health, nutrition, hygiene, grooming and fitness activities.

3. You have budgeted some time for non-crucial things, but made a commitment to spend as little time on those as absolutely necessary.

4. You have alarms, wake-up services or whatever else it takes, to wake you up at the right time. (I have a framed poem next to my bed. I made it myself, to help me with wake-up.) It is by the Persian poet, Rumi.

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the door sill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”

The “snooze” button is a tremendous enemy of time in the morning, for many people. Perhaps not for you. But even those who wake up and get up may find themselves snoozing mentally. Think of wake time as true “awakening” time for you in the life you want to lead.

All you have done requires only one more component: YOU, doing what you know to be effective in your life. How do you want to live it?

Do you want to continue to have a reputation for not being dependable about punctuality? You probably need to improve in all areas of that, if morning is a problem.

Do you want to feel stressed and pressured every morning? You know you don’t, so this allows you to take control of the thing that makes you feel badly now.

Do you want to go to bed at a decent time, feel prepared for getting ready for work after a good night’s sleep, and walk out (not run out) the door the next day, knowing that you will be on time even if there is a thirty minute traffic jam? What a great feeling, huh? Won’t it be nice to be settling into work when everyone else is, instead of rushing in the door while others look up to see you in a flustered state?

You can have the morning time you most want if you do some work to change what is happening now. Of course, as complicated as I may seem to have made this, the truth is there are probably other issues with which you need to deal: How you feel about work, how organized or disorganized your home is, the relationships you have that take up time on the computer or phone, the way you live your life in general. But getting control of morning time will help in all of those areas, I promise.

Best wishes to you with this. Let us know if something works well and you’d like to share your experiences.

Tina Lewis Rowe


Hello, just wanted you to know that this was wonderful advice for me. I’ve been following all of it and am doing much better than ever and have been for several months. My boss has even commended me about my punctuality! But I know it is not something I can let up on for even one morning. I’m hoping I can get into such a habit with all of it that I can feel like it’s natural, but right now, it takes me reminding myself several times a day! Thank you again for the detailed help!

Signed,  Not Late Now


Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.