The reason why you’re late to everything isn’t why you would expect

If you’re the type of person who is always late, no matter how much you plan, then you’re going to want to hear about this time management study from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. While it won’t necessarily legitimize your tardiness (hey, we aren’t here to judge — we get that late life), it will help you understand the complex idea of time-based prospective memory (TBPM) that might be the cause of your lateness.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, notes how people use memories of how long things took them to do in the past to estimate how long it will take them to do in the future. Emily Waldum, the principal author of the paper, said:

"Our results suggest time estimates of tasks that we need to incorporate into our later plans, like a drive to an appointment, are often based on our memory of how long it took us to perform that same drive previously."

"Even if you think you estimated the duration of events accurately, external factors unrelated to that event can bias time estimates," Waldum said. "Something as simple as the number of songs you heard play on your phone during a run can influence whether you over- or under-estimate the duration of the run."

The study monitored 36 college undergraduates and 34 older adults (in their 60s, 70s, and 80s) performing specifics tasks. And it showed that younger people are more influenced by outside factors when it comes to time management.

For example, in the first part of the study, the participants were asked to estimate how long it took them to complete a trivia quiz. It always ran 11 minutes long, but they had to guess the time without using a clock. Some participants had no background noise during the quiz, while others heard either two long songs or four shorter songs.

Whether or not there was music in the background, the older adults tended to perform the same. If they did have the songs in the background, they reported that they ignored the music and used their internal clocks. It often led to them not finishing the quiz on time.

As for the college-aged participants:

"When younger adults heard two long songs during the first quiz, they performed a lot like older adults, underestimating the quiz duration and winding up a bit late," Waldum said. "When they heard four short songs, younger adults overestimated how much time they would need to repeat the quiz leading them to finish it too early."

That means, if you’re a bit younger in age, something like music in the background might make you think it takes less — or more — time to do something than it actually does.

However, that can be a good thing since the influence of music indicated that younger people were much more likely to multitask than the older participants. If you don’t have a clock available, the researchers concluded multitasking could be beneficial since you can use music or another outside source like a TV show to help you make a time estimate.

As we said before, this study doesn’t excuse you for arriving late to events or appointments, but it helps explain that your brain can play tricks when it comes to time preparation. So keep distractions at a minimum and rely on an actual watch — not your internal clock — to help you plan accordingly. And if you don’t have a clock, pay attention to the elements around you to help estimate time.

We know all of this is easier said than done for the chronically late, but it’s worth a shot. And hey, next time you’re late, at least now you can blame your brain.