The Chronically Late Physician

March 3, 2015
Jennifer Frank, MD

Staying on time is a challenge for this physician. But she concedes there are methods to improve her time management.

This past week, I think I was late to every single meeting. It started on Tuesday morning. I had a meeting at a location about one hour from my house, but had some strange notion that I could defy the laws of physics and make it in 50 minutes. When my failure to bend the time-space continuum became apparent about 20 miles from my destination, I decided to call the meeting organizer to notify her of my imminent tardiness. Of course, I didn't have her phone number which added to the stress.

My husband, who is chronically early, darn him, would just point out the obvious - leave earlier, plan realistically, don't try to do too much. It is such logical advice that I have wondered why I can't just take it and implement it. However, I haven't (yet).  Recently, though, I discovered that it isn't my fault; it's just that I have "planning fallacy." Apparently planning fallacy is a behavioral disorder in which the sufferer underestimates the time required to complete tasks. So it isn't my fault - it's just my planning fallacy. I also read that it is very difficult to change this behavior. So, I may be doomed.

Sometimes my reasons are really good: Yesterday I was leaving the gym for a meeting more or less on time (which is by definition for me is within 10 minutes of the time I absolutely have to leave, in order to make it someplace on time), when I witnessed an elderly woman take a tumble in the crosswalk. So, my arrival was delayed further, as I helped the woman into the building and did a brief assessment. I know that it would make a lot of sense to add a cushion in my schedule in case this sort of emergency comes up. However, since this particular situation occurs once each decade, it is hard for me to add a cushion for the eventuality that I come across a medical emergency (or flat tire or any other potential delay).

Like most people who are chronically late, I find it very frustrating to be kept waiting myself. This is probably because my schedule is so tight because of my poor planning (or planning fallacy) that I don't have the flexibility in my schedule to accommodate the unexpected or unanticipated.

One thing I picked up from the Wall Street Journal article is to improve my timeliness by breaking down my tasks into smaller parts, and thinking through the actual time needed. Whenever I do this exercise, I find that I have underestimated how much time I need by around 25 percent. My schedule is often packed and reflects my eternal hope that everything works perfectly. There is rarely wiggle room for leaving a meeting late, running into traffic, actually eating something during "lunch," or having prep time before a meeting. So, I've added more blocks into my calendar, so that I am prepared for the unexpected.

Despite the dire prognosis of my terminal condition, I remain hopeful that I can, through therapeutic lifestyle change and cognitive behavioral therapy, find a cure.