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The great late debate: are you an early person or always late?

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Hannah Keegan
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There are many things that divide us, but none as much as time – are you perpetually punctual or always five minutes late? Stylist’s Alix Walker and Billie Bhatia argue it out.

The argument for being early

There’s a grass verge in the village of Cottingley which I could sketch from memory. I have this peculiar talent because I spent so long staring at it while waiting for my mum to pick me up from school. 

Five, 10, 15, 20 minutes after every other navy blue school uniform had scattered, I stood staring at that foliage. Half an hour later, mum would arrive with a flurry of shopping bags, funny stories and other people’s children she had picked up en route because she is very kind and a sucker for a sob story. But this is not a sob story – in fact, I credit that waiting time for my patience today. 

But I will say this: 28 years later, I am never late.

On the outside, I try to exude an air of insouciance, the demeanour of a laidback Scandi (I’m not Scandi, I’m from Bradford and my blonde hair is paid for) who would never be beholden to something as basic as a watch. But on the inside, my mind runs on an internal clock that breaks down time into minutes and is constantly counting backwards from the exact time I need to leave. 

My approach is so Type A that I couldn’t possibly just ‘forget’ the time. (Interestingly, one study found that Type A personalities felt as though a minute passed in 58 seconds, whereas Type B personalities felt as if a minute passed in 77 seconds). If you’ve told me to be somewhere, I will be. In fact, I’ll probably arrive 45 minutes early when the cafe is still shut and consequently end up walking up and down the road with the air of the slightly deranged. 

Being late for anything makes me instantly anxious, guilty and sweaty.

I know exactly how long it takes to dry my hair and apply a passable amount of make-up (eight minutes). I factor in time for public transport fuck-ups, I always have a back-up plan if everything does go really wrong, and I’m just a pretty fast person. Even on the (very) rare occasion that I need to text someone a brief novel explaining why I’m running late and that “I’m SO incredibly sorry” and “Oh my god I feel awful”, I’ll probably still arrive before them. 

In fact, my children now laugh in my face when I tell them we’re late for school – which I do every morning – because they’re the only kids in their class who have 100% punctuality on their reports.

If all of this makes me sound like the last person on earth you’d want to arrange dinner with, there’s a caveat: I don’t hate people who are late. I just don’t understand them. I do not understand how roughly 30 years of experience doesn’t teach you how long it takes to get dressed, or how of course you have time to ‘pop in to Arket’ three minutes before your train is due to leave, or how you don’t feel wracked with anxiety at the thought of leaving someone sitting in a restaurant waiting 40 minutes for you. But the fact is, I don’t mind waiting for you. I quite like the quiet time. And for that you can thank my mum, who always kept me waiting – but who I’ll happily wait all day for.

The argument for being late

The only time I have ever been early was the day I was born. Due on 1 April, I decided I wasn’t about to be taken for a fool, and so greeted the world a day earlier than expected. But that’s where my premature story ends. 

The soundtrack to my childhood was, “Billie, come on, we’re going to miss the bus!” delivered every morning with exasperation by my older sister, Annie. Minutes before our school bus departed, I would clamber down the stairs asking if anyone had seen my shoes. “Take a chill pill,” I’d say to Annie on the days we made it, and, “Oh, it must have come early…” on the days we didn’t. Either way, I knew that the world wouldn’t stop turning if I was late, so I decreed punctuality no big deal.

Billie Bhatia Headshot
Billie Bhatia on why she is so thankful to the nurses who took care of her

My tardiness was just part of the noise of my large, loud, eccentric family, and I willingly adopted the role of ‘last one out of the house’. It was humorous and I was rarely scolded. 

As an adult, my lateness has been very much accepted working in the fashion industry, and so continued with blasé insolence; fashion events don’t start on time and turning up early is often considered poor etiquette. I like to think I’m just unrealistically optimistic about time – I don’t want to face the reality that I’m not as efficient as I think I am. 

I allow 45 minutes to get showered, dressed, groomed and fed before work, but in reality, I scroll TikTok on the toilet, spend ages looking for matching socks and generally move at a snail’s pace. Yet every morning I wonder if today will be the day I am not late.

There’s also a celebratory high that comes with getting away with it; when you realise you had an extra 10 minutes in bed and still wound up in the same situation as ‘the punctuals’. Recently, I was running late to a fashion show, which resulted in minor heart palpitations and me running down slime-coated steps in the pouring rain, praying I didn’t fall. I arrived, panting, at the same time as Anna Wintour. I’d perfected my tardiness to such a degree that my arrival aligned with the most powerful woman in fashion. If that isn’t worth a round of applause, I don’t know what is.

Last year, I read an article saying “punctual people may think late people are passive-aggressive and that they believe their time is more valuable than others”. On behalf of tardy people, I assure you this is not the case. There’s a stereotype that we don’t care about those left waiting (classic early-arrival self-righteousness), when I’m actually in awe of people able to masterfully work time in a way I cannot fathom. But then, who wants to be constantly weighed down with a sense of pragmatism that means you can’t chance anything? 

I’m not advocating arriving at the airport 20 minutes before a flight (the stress of that really isn’t worth it), but living life a few minutes behind schedule is no bad thing.

Every 1 April, I wake up grateful for my one early moment that saved me from a birthday full of pranks. Then I hit snooze and accept another day of being late – because that’s just who I am.

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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