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Friday, May 8, 2009

The Unimportance of Punctuality

I've been late virtually all my life, a trait that has probably made my life more difficult than necessary. It's not that I can't get places at a particular time. When I started my Junior year in high school, I decided to get perfect attendance for the year. And, I did. I just don't see the point.

The question I'm dying to ask at a job interview is this: Relative to everything else I'll do in a day if I come to work for you, how important is punctuality? Naturally, any HR person worth their salt will tap dance all around this question and come up with some BS about how everything I do will be important, and that showing up to work "on time" is included. What a load of crap. If the quality and quantity of my work isn't far more important than the time of day I start work, the work probably isn't worth doing.

Yes, being at a particular place at a particular time may be important in some jobs or on some occasions. But, I can think of very few examples where it's truly important to be "on time." It's important for ambulance drivers and fire trucks to get to the scene as fast as possible, not at a particular time of day. If the person who opens the Sears store shows up a few minutes after the scheduled store opening time, so what? How many customers are standing outside the doors waiting so they can buy a washing machine at 9:00 AM? Maybe a lot - I don't know because I'm not one of them. If I needed a washing machine at 9:00 AM, I'd wait a few minutes for the store to open rather than drive half an hour to buy a washing machine somewhere else.

In the private sector, being punctual is mostly an issue of the employer getting every minute of the time he's paying you for. But, at jobs where you punch a clock, you don't get paid unless you're there, so it's not like you're stealing by showing up "late." If I'm willing to take home a few cents less at the end of the day, what does it matter to my employer? In my mind, punctuality shouldn't even be a consideration in a salaried position.

Here's the irony. I've worked in places where punctuality is practically worshiped as a god. Guys show up to work early just to be sure they're "on time." Then, they stand around drinking coffee or eating doughnuts for half an hour! I've worked in places where smokers stand around smoking for an hour or so every day. But, as long as they're "on time" in the morning, nobody seems to mind. Walk in an hour late and you'll get written up.

I just don't get that much fulfillment out of being "on time," I've been there, done that, got the certificate, and it's not that big of a deal.

If it's no big deal, you may ask, then why not just do it? That's a valid question, and I'll give you a good answer.

Mainly, I value my time very highly. Because my mortgage company won't take home-grown vegetables or car repairs in barter for my house payment, I have to have some sort of income, so I sell 40 hours of my time every week for the highest rate I can get. The other 128 hours per week are mine. Not for sale at any price. So, it's not an accident that I show up to work at the last possible second. It's a deliberate effort on my part to maximize priceless time and keep the 40 hours I sell down to precisely 40 hours.

A corallary to this is that, no matter how much someone else gets paid for their work, their time is not worth any more than mine. I will not show up early for doctor appointments because it never pays. If you show up at the appointed time, you will sit in the waiting room. Waiting. I know doctors endure years of schooling to get where they are and I don't begrudge them the money they earn. But, if I'm at the doctor's office, I'm not at work, which means I'm on my time. Which is priceless.

The Army and I had fundamentally differing views on the subject of punctuality. If the Army said a formation would be held at 6:30AM, that's when I'd get there. They expected soldiers to show up ten or twenty minutes prior to that time and stand around, but that's just not in my make-up. Why should I stand around doing nothing when I could sleep an extra ten or twenty minutes and show up at the last second? I might have felt differently if the Army was as diligent about letting us go home at the end of the day, but they weren't.

Well, you say, your boss/employer/NCO is in charge and if they say to be there at x:xx o'clock, that's what you have to do. Yes, yes. I know. I'm not arguing that point. I'm simply asking why it's so pathologically important to Americans to be "on time." I don't have a problem with authority, but I reserve my personal right to question it. I question the value of punctuality. In fact, I stop just short of denying that it has any value at all.

I realize it's rude to keep people waiting,but my attitude toward punctuality extends to my social life. I am loathe to get myself into a situation where I've got to drop everything (or nothing) to be somewhere at a particular time. So, for example, I don't go to movies because they DO start at a specified time. (That's far from the only reason I won't pay $10 to watch something I can buy on DVD for $5 a month later, but it's A reason.) I much prefer casual social calls at my house or a friend's house where there's sort of a window and you show up some time within that window. That's much more relaxing than having to rush to be somewhere "on time."

I am generally not what you'd describe as a "focused" person. I take life as it comes. I smell roses. I do not live by a calendar or clock. I tend to get around to doing things when the mood strikes. On any given Saturday, I might get up early and cut the grass. Or, I might sleep in. Or, I might have a big breakfast and go piddle around in the garage for a couple of hours. Or, maybe I'll take the whole family out to run errands. It's Saturday. Why should I schedule out a perfectly good day? I might as well be at work.

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