Want to make a better first impression? Do this.

This morning I had a meeting at 9:05 AM. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was I was running behind for my meeting, and I hate being late. I’ve been that way since I can remember. Maybe it was caused by my mother often showing up late for me. As a result, I’ve worked hard to be punctual, and it’s served me well in life and work.

But, I digress. Back to my story of me going against my own principles.

To make up some time for my 9:05 AM meeting, I rushed out of the bathroom, got my winter coat on, dashed out the door onto the sidewalk and scurried my way to my meeting. I was walking as fast as I could without running. It was that walk/run that looks super awkward, and you know that the people around are saying to themselves, “That poor dude is running late…”

As I was doing my walk/run, I kept on looking at my phone to check the time. I finally got to the door, and I was only a couple minutes late. I was relieved. I was still somewhat dignified. I was OK. I mean, I wasn’t right on time, but it was still a respectable less-than-five-minutes-late kind of late. I wasn’t that bad of a person, I said to myself. I could still hold my head up, gently apologize and get on with the meeting.

Bursting into the lobby, I saw the person who had set up the meeting, and I shook his hand and said good morning. Then he told me the person he wanted me to meet was running a little bit late.

In my head, I was cursing. “You mean I was huffing and puffing, in my walk/run trot, to get here and that person didn’t have the decency to do the same for me?” I thought to myself. I fought the urge to roll my eyes and sigh.

Instead, I didn’t say anything. I sat in the chair he offered me and drank the water I was handed. And, I waited. Around 9:20, the person I was supposed to meet walked in. “Hey, what’s up!” He said enthusiastically. Then, he repeated himself and introduced himself. Maybe he thought that if he said “What’s up!” enough I was going to forget that he was way beyond the under-five-minutes-late rule. I didn’t return his boisterous greeting. I was subdued. But, I was cordial. I shook his hand and gave him a “Nice to meet you.” Then, I said this:

“I have until 9:35a.”

Generally, I work very hard to be punctual. I believe certain things about punctuality. When someone is on time it says that they care about you. They respect your time. They are reliable. They are prepared. Now, not all of those characteristics are true just because someone can be on time. And the inverse may not be true either. If a person is on time they may not respect you, be reliable, etc. But, it seems that punctuality and respect seem to go hand in hand. It feels that way.

Now, I’m far from perfect. I’ve been late. In fact, I also was late in my little story above. I’ve even committed the unforgivable sin–completely flaking on a meeting. So, please don’t think there’s any space for this author to be judging anyone else.

Since most communication is nonverbal, showing up late communicates that I don’t think you’re important enough to be timely. Most likely you never intended to disrespect that person. But that person showed up on time for you, and you didn’t return the act. Most people don’t mind wasting their own time because it’s theirs to waste. But I find that people hate it when someone else wastes it for them.

Punctual people see time as a limited resource. It’s finite. So, they steward it carefully. This mindset is especially true with successful business people. “Time is money,” as they say. And to many, it’s worth more than money.

Those types of people also take what they say seriously. They do what they say they will. In business, that is the difference between someone trusting you, or not. Trust is built on a foundation of many micro-actions that built up over time. It also works the other way around. Acts, like consistently arriving late, erode that foundation. And, it is very delicate. One act can topple the whole building. Think Jenga on steroids, except it’s your career and life you’re playing with.

Trust is even more important in a world where optionality is the norm. We have so many choices before us, and we are constantly looking for that better thing, the upgrade. But, more often than not, when we break a principle like keeping promises, we end up losing what really satisfies, like loving relationships and trusted business partners.

Maybe you’re thinking, “John, of course I want those things in my life. And I definitely don’t think I’m more important than so-and-so. I’ve just always been late. I’m not good with time.” I get that. It makes complete sense. A lot of my friends and acquaintances have the same struggle, even my beloved mother. “I can’t help it,” you might say.

But, you can help it.

Being on time is a choice. In fact, it’s a lot of little choices. If you are in the middle of working on something, know when to stop to get to where you are going. Know the amount of time it will take to get there, then stop several minutes before the time you should leave. When it’s time to leave, you get yourself up and go. If a co-worker says they have a question, you say the uncomfortable thing, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now, can this wait until tomorrow?” and go.

Also, We all have devices in our pockets that are constantly binging and dinging. Set alerts on them. Create a calendar and use it. Set your meetings in it with reminders and alerts. I think punctuality is merely a habit that has yet to be formed. It’s a way of thinking that needs to become a pattern in your life, and a smartphone can be helpful in creating a new habit.

Now, I’ve read that Winston Churchill was late for all of his meetings. He made people wait without remorse. Even as a child he was tardy to everything. To that, I would say there are always anomalies. Churchill was certainly one of them. He believed he was greater than most. And many people, especially at the height of his power, would have agreed with him. He was one of the most important people that the world has ever seen.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a Churchill. I don’t have a World War II on my hands, where I’m fighting a burly Nazi war machine barreling down on much of the known world. I’m certainly not a world leader. I’m just a small business owner, pretending to be a writer.

There are cultures where time is much looser (i.e. Latin American, Spanish, African, etc.) I’m not judging nor looking down at them. Do as the Romans do. Take that siesta. Show up an hour late.

However, I do believe I’m writing to English speakers. To be more precise, most of you are Americans. In this country, punctuality is generally the rule, especially in business. And, if you want to find a good life partner, I definitely suggest taking heed to my words. Dating is one of the hardest businesses there is, but I leave that for another post.

If or when you are late, remember there is only one course to rectify the situation: Apologize swiftly and sincerely. Look the person in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for being late!” Own it. And, absorb the discomfort. If the person is gracious, they will say, “No worries,” right away. If they are less so, they may not say anything. I find that most people are ready to accept a genuine apology. If you want to take it up a notch, you can buy their lunch, coffee, or whatever you’re having for your meeting.

One thing you should absolutely not do when you’re running late is stroll in like you don’t have a care in the world. You’ve got to make the effort to get there. In other words, You’ve got to walk/run like an idiot. And, have all the people around say, “That poor dude must be running late…

Those actions may not win trust from the person you’re meeting. They may still wonder if you are reliable, but at least they would have felt better about the offense of your tardiness. You have a better chance at winning that business, friends or life partner.

My meeting with the person who was late was a banker who wanted my business. He was at least fifteen minutes late. We had a decent conversation, but he didn’t apologize at the beginning. Around 9:35 I said I needed to go. And as I stood up, we said all of the usual warm words. And, as I turned to leave, he apologized for being late, which I accepted. But, I didn’t get the feeling that he was concerned about me. I felt like he only cared about his business.

I still do.

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