A Man Is Punctual: The Importance of Being on Time

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 16, 2012 · 136 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette, On Virtue

The life of George Washington was characterized by a scrupulous regard for punctuality.

When he asked a man to bring by some horses he was interested in buying at five in the morning, and the man arrived fifteen minutes late, he was told by the stable groom that the general had been waiting there at five, but had now moved on to other business, and that he wouldn’t be able to examine the horses again until the following week.

When he told Congress that he’d meet with them at noon, he could almost always be found striding into the chamber just as the clock was striking twelve.

Washington’s promptness extended to his mealtimes as well. He ate dinner each day at exactly 4 o’clock, and when he invited members of Congress to dine with him, and they arrived late, they were often surprised to find the president halfway done with his meal or even pushing back from the table. To his startled, tardy guest he would say, “We are punctual here. My cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has come.”

And when Washington’s secretary arrived late to a meeting, and blamed his watch for his tardiness, Washington quietly replied, “Then you must get another watch, or I another secretary.”

George Washington’s passion for punctuality was born from his youthful study of “The Rules of Civility” – his repeated copying of maxims like “Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Careful to keep your Promise.” For Washington, being on time was a way of showing respect to others, and he expected to be treated with the same level of respect in return.

We may no longer live in an age of knickers and powdered wigs, but being punctual is just as important as it ever was. It has been called “a homely, but solid virtue,” and it certainly doesn’t cause one’s breast to swell in the way that pondering courage or resolution does. But related as punctuality is to discipline and self-mastery, to integrity and respect, it is – if not particularly sexy – still an essential component of the character of an upstanding man.

Today we’ll explore why this is so, and then on Wednesday we’ll cover why some men struggle with being on time despite their best efforts, along with tips on how to overcome the habit of always running behind.

Why Is Being Punctual Important?

“The habit of being prompt once formed extends to everything — meeting friends, paying debts, going to church, reaching and leaving place of business, keeping promises, retiring at night and rising in the morning, going to the lecture and town-meeting, and, indeed, to every relation and act, however trivial it may seem to observers.” –William Makepeace Thayer, Tact and Grit, 1882

The importance of punctuality is not universal and varies from culture to culture. In some places like Latin America and the Pacific Islands, life moves at a different pace and meeting times are meant to be fuzzy. But this does not negate the value of punctuality to a man living in a culture that does define being on time more strictly, just as the well-rounded man of the West seeks competence in things like shaking hands, wearing a tie, working out with a kettlebell, and holding open doors for women, even if such things are not practiced the world over.

Here’s why.

“I have always been a quarter of an hour before my time, and it has made a man of me.” -Horatio, Lord Nelson

Being punctual strengthens and reveals your integrity. If you tell someone that you will meet them at a certain time, you have essentially made them a promise. And if you say you’ll be there at 8:00, and yet arrive at 8:15, you have essentially broken that promise. Being on time shows others that you are a man of your word.

Being punctual shows you are dependable. A man can always be found at his post, carrying out the duties needful for that time. People know they can rely on such a man – if he says he will be there, he’ll be there. But if a man is not punctual, others cannot depend on him — they do not know where he will be when they need him. His associates will begin to feel he cannot organize his own time, and these doubts will seep into matters beyond the clock, as it naturally raises the question: “If he is careless about time, what else is he careless about?”

Benjamin Franklin once said to an employee who was always late, but always ready with an excuse:  I have generally found that the man who is good at an excuse is good for nothing else.”

Being punctual builds your self-confidence. Showing up on time not only tells other people you are dependable, it teaches you that you can depend on yourself. The more you keep the promises you make, the more your self-confidence will grow. And the more you gain in self-mastery, the less you will be at the mercy of your compulsions and habits, and the more in control of your life you will feel.

Being punctual assures you’re at your best. After riding someone’s bumper, speeding like a maniac, scanning for cops, and cursing at red lights, it’s hard to then turn your focus to making a presentation at a meeting or charming a date – you’re shaky and depleted from the adrenaline and stress. But when you show up on time, better yet a little early, you have a few minutes to collect your thoughts, review your materials, and get your game face on.

“Soldiers should be minutemen. Punctuality is one of the most valuable habits a soldier can possess.” –Christopher Columbus Andrews, Hints to Company Officers on Their Military Duties, 1863

Being punctual builds and reveals your discipline. The punctual man shows that he can organize his time, that he pays attention to details, and that he can put aside this to do that – he can set aside a pleasure to take care of business.

“’There is great dignity in being waited for,’ said one who was in this habit, and who had not much of which he need be vain, unless it was this want of promptness.” –John Todd, The Students Manual, 1854

Being punctual shows your humility. That bumper sticker maxim: “Always late, but worth the wait” shows that tardiness and an overestimation of one’s worth sometimes go hand in hand. People will be glad to see you when you arrive, but they would have been gladder still had you come on time.

Being punctual shows your respect for others. Being late is a selfish act, for it puts your needs above another’s. You want an extra minute to do what you’d like, but in gaining that minute for yourself, you take a minute from another, which is why….

Being late is a form of stealing. That’s a tough truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless. When you make others wait for you, you rob minutes from them that they’ll never get back. Time they could have turned into money, or simply used for the things important to them. In coming to meet you at the agreed upon hour, they may have made sacrifices – woken up early, cut short their workout, told their kid they couldn’t read a story together – and your lateness negates those sacrifices. If you wouldn’t think of taking ten dollars from another man’s wallet, you shouldn’t think of stealing ten minutes from him either. Being punctual shows you value time yourself, and thus wouldn’t think of depriving others of this precious, but limited resource.

“It has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money—usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.” –Arnold Bennett, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, 1910

Being late disturbs the experiences of other people. Your tardiness not only robs others of their time, but of the fullness of their experiences as well. The student who interrupts a professor in the middle of his lecture; the family which climbs over you to get to their seats at the middle of the row in the theater; the man who opens the creaky door in the middle of a eulogy. When an old man was once asked why he had been so punctual in arriving at his church on time for decades, he replied, “I made it my religion not to disturb the religion of others.”

Being late strains your relationships. When you’re late in meeting other people, it makes them feel under-valued, that whatever you couldn’t pull yourself away from was more important or that they didn’t mean enough to you to warrant allotting sufficient time to arrive on schedule. The guest who flies in to see you feels like a dope standing at the airport alone, your date feels awkward sitting at the restaurant by herself, and your child feels abandoned as she waits with her teacher for you to arrive, all the other children having already been picked up from school.

Being late hurts your professional career. Whether you’re an employee or in business for yourself, being late can hinder your professional success. Many companies have strict policies about punctuality — get a few write-ups and you’re gone. Of course, if you arrive late to the job interview, you probably won’t land the position in the first place. And if you’re trying to win over a new client, arriving ten minutes late isn’t going to get things off on the right foot, in the same way that promising to get something to him by a certain date and then failing to do so, may have him looking elsewhere for your services.

Being late takes a toll on your life. Always running behind simply hurts you in all areas of your life. It results in lost opportunities: missing a plane, missing a meeting, missing an important part of a lecture, missing a wedding. It creates stress and can lead to car accidents and traffic tickets. It results in embarrassment and forces you to come up with excuses for why you’re late, putting a strain on your honesty. Basically, it makes your life more complicated; for men seeking to simplify their lives, cultivating punctuality is an essential part of that path.

Read Part II: The Reasons You’re Late and How to Always Be on Time 

{ 136 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Caleb July 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

I was taking a practical class in college during which we each had to give a 3 minute presentation about ourselves. The professor stressed that we should strive for exactly 3 minutes. As the semester progressed, the presentations kept getting longer. Sometimes up to 10 or 15 minutes. When I went, I was almost exactly 3 minutes. The professor (and everyone else) was shocked that I didn’t go longer and slightly annoyed. I politely said that he asked for 3 minutes and I gave 3 minutes. If he wanted 10 I could do 10 but I prepared 3 as that was the assignment. He didn’t like my response, but I received full credit.

102 Martin July 19, 2012 at 2:45 pm

I enjoyed this article a great deal. I am in my mid-twenties and am constantly teased by friends for my punctuality and overall manners; in our group, I am “the nice guy”. I am now serving as a volunteer teacher in Eastern Europe. In my village, life is very easy-going, and people think nothing of showing up half an hour late to a meeting. When I met an English speaking cousin of one of my students, she told me when she found out an American was living in her family’s village, she asked about me, and one of the first compliments that she mentioned they gave was my reliability and professionalism. People do take notice of such things, and respect those that practice them.

103 m July 19, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Great article. I will definitely be sharing this with others. My wife and I are both very punctual. Unfortunately, it seems most people aren’t.

104 A6 July 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I grew up with my Grandmother, and ever since I can remember she’s been drilling into my head the importance of “being on time.” And thanks to her, I can honestly say that the most rewarding experiences of my life happened because I was at the right place at the RIGHT time. I always thought it was a personal thing between her and myself until I read this post. Wait until I tell her about this.

105 R J Vincent July 19, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I’m borderline OCD when it comes to being on time. I got that from my first grade teacher (thanks, Mrs. Vineberg, where ever you are). At first I was late in turning in assignments but she worked with me and showed me the need to turn things in on time and it stuck. I actually get a bit annoyed when it seems I might be late for an appointment or an event. I ALWAYS make sure I arrive slightly early (no more than 10 minutes) for a job interview. It gives me a few minutes to get settled and it’s more or less a standard practice. People who are chronically late drive me nuts.

106 Vinicius July 23, 2012 at 12:14 am

To be honest, I almost always get to places earlier and keep a couple of minutes waiting for others to come.

107 Henry F. S. July 23, 2012 at 5:51 pm

What a fantastic article! As of late I’ve been severely lacking in almost all aspects of self-mastery…I have definitely been at the mercy of my bad habits and unnecessary compulsions. I want and need to gain control back in my life and am very pleased at finding new found motivation through your writing. Thank you very much Brett & Kate McKay.

108 Eric Greene July 25, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Fantastic article.

Long time lurker to this site. I wish there were 100 just like it.

109 John M July 27, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Great article! Didn’t know that being punctual meant all that! I always do it out of respect for the other person.

110 Fearless August 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Great point about stealing the other person’s time. It seems most people, myself included who are lax on punctuality occasionally just (wrongly) assume that the other person doesn’t mind.

111 jon August 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm

i cannot stand it when people are late. we always have a pre shift meeting at work and people always would show up 5 to 10 minutes late. when i was promoted to manager and started conducting the meetings, i started sending people home if they failed to show up on time.

112 Clyde W October 7, 2012 at 2:21 am

I enjoyed this article a great deal.

113 Rahel November 14, 2012 at 5:15 pm

i learned lots of things from this articles!

114 Karen December 18, 2012 at 7:58 am

Thank you for this article. Now to try to learn to become OCD with time.

115 Arjun January 1, 2013 at 5:12 am

I have always believed this, credit to my mother, the issue is as an Indian not a single other person I know is on time. If someone asks to meet me at 7:30 I reach at 7:25 or so,but wait till 7:50 before the other party shows up nothing is as frustrating. A dinner invite is the worst if i show up before 8:00 for a 7:30 invite it’s almost sinful, the house is not ready to receive me.

116 Daniel February 4, 2013 at 8:56 am

This helped me write an essay

117 vishnu March 12, 2013 at 5:38 am

Always running behind simply hurts you in all areas of your life

118 Alena Mary April 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm

This page helped me to prepare a speech. Thank YOU

119 Wallace May 16, 2013 at 11:26 am

Washington suffered from an Autistic Syndrome like my grandson. Everything has to be at a certain time and a certain way or he becomes completely discobobulated.

120 Jud Erwin May 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I am not stumbled by pride in reading this or posting a comment however, I do tend to find myself stumbling in pride when I arrive late as I cannot help feeling more important than the puntual people.

121 shoma pramod June 12, 2013 at 9:01 am

being punctual is very important in life because it matters a lot.life becomes smoother and easier when u do the decided things at proper time.

122 Amber June 29, 2013 at 5:16 pm

I’m always at least 10-15 minutes early. When I was really young, I was late this one time, about five minutes late, and I really didn’t like feeling guilty, so it was my first and last time being late. I really don’t like it when other people are late. If they’re just one or two minutes late, then it’s okay, but any more than five minutes makes me feel as if they don’t respect me enough to meet me on time.

123 Raymond June 29, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I used to be 30 minutes to an hour early until people starts to arrive 30 minutes to an hour late! Right now I arrive just on time.

How I wish everyone who were late at least once were to read this article!

124 Ong Kah Jing July 1, 2013 at 2:47 am

Thank you foe the great read!
I had always been punctual due to the teachings and discipline instilled in me from my father.
I was on the verge of following the crowd of tardiness as most people would, for I did not understand the value of being on time if it was not appreciated.
After reading this, I understand the true value and benefits being punctual has on me, and shall continue practicing this art.
Once again, thank you very much for the great read that accompanied me on my lunch today 😊

125 Felix Leong July 1, 2013 at 7:27 pm

very good read, thank you so much.

126 C July 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Not too sure if anyone have mentioned this, but this popped into my head while i was reading this.

should you be late for a appointment due to unforeseen circumstances (helping a stranger or whatever), give your friends/colleagues a call, apologise and explain and not sending a one liner text 5 mins before(or after) meeting time.

127 James October 6, 2013 at 3:40 am

I love this article. I’m 21 and I notice that the majority of my generation doesn’t value punctuality. I view it as dishonesty when someone is late without justification or forewarning. It’s insulting, really. There are only a few of my closest friends that I would excuse from being late. Everyone else loses a lot of my trust and respect when they waste my time.

128 Bruce October 10, 2013 at 9:47 am

Thank you for writing this very important article regarding punctuality and it’s importance in all aspects of life. I have always strived to be punctual and pride myself on being a man of my word. I feel if is a grave character flaw when an individual is chronically tardy. It is inconsiderate, disrespectful and just plane rude. I am passing onto my two young sons the importance of being punctual. I find that being punctual allows you the time to enjoy the trip to your destination rather than stressing out about getting there on time. To all my fellow punctual co-harts I say keep up the good work! We need more of us!

129 Theresa Ang November 1, 2013 at 9:48 am

Great article.A reminder to all to keep to this good habit.
THANK you .

130 Jennifer November 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm

This article so completely articulates exactly my feelings. I totally detest waiting!! and especially waiting for people wondering if they’ll show up or at what time they will show up. I so totally detest waiting for others that I am super punctual as a consideration so that others don’t have to wait for me because I know how much I disllike it when it is done to me. The feeling that others value their time and what they want to do more than my time is present when I have to wait and I feel very unconsidered.

131 Jennifer November 13, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I have to add that punctuality is not only about arriving on time. It is also starting meetings and things on time. When you start meetings late, you’re teaching people to be late. They shrug and think, if the meeting is not going to start on time then why should I be on time? Besides they also feel disrespected for their time and effort to arrive on time only to wait.

132 preeti November 26, 2013 at 7:04 am

punctuality is lost somewhere today. we must conserve this good habit for our next generation

133 Icealena Thomas January 6, 2014 at 10:48 pm

I am a person who HATES being late. I absolutely loved reading this!

134 Alex January 8, 2014 at 8:10 am

Since most of the comments have come from punctual people, I thought to chime in as the chronically late guy. As Brett and Kate write, being tardy does show a lack of self-mastery and most definitely seeps into other parts of your life. I’m a husband and father of three, and distractions abound in my life. It’s proven difficult for me to stop doing one thing — especially if it’s for leisure — and start another. I’ve consequently struggled to keep my promises to myself (exercising regularly) and others (showing up to work on time). The result does feel like a gradual decline in the respect of others. This isn’t lost on me, which is why I came to this article in the first place. Great read; thanks guys.

135 Sam Sofi January 26, 2014 at 7:21 am

This article really helped me….Thanx for posting this.

136 Donald Steen February 28, 2014 at 2:07 pm

This has always stuck in my head in regards to this topic.

Early is On-time; On-time is Late; Late is Unacceptable!

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