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.
“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.