Happy but Tardy? How Optimism and Punctuality Relate
In recalling an article I recently read, I got the premise backward. My recollection was that the article said people who are always late have one thing in common: they’re optimists. That makes a certain amount of sense; some people are who consistently late are indeed optimistic because they believe they can do one more thing and then one more additional thing before their deadline, and in the process they end up late.
But I rebelled against this misremembered recollection because some people who are routinely late aren’t necessarily optimists; they’re simply poor planners. When they consistently show up fifteen minutes late, they demonstrate that they can reliably show up on time—plus fifteen minutes. So why couldn’t they have allowed some extra time at the outset so they’d be punctual?
When I reread the article, I realized that the point it was making was just the reverse of what I’d recalled: not that people who are late are always optimists, but that optimists are always late. But I can’t fully agree with that, either. Certainly, optimists may take on more than their schedule and commitments allow, resulting in a tendency to be punctually challenged. But I know people who are relentlessly optimistic yet have no problem being where they’re supposed to be and doing what they’re supposed to do on time. In fact, some of these people would find the idea of being anything less than punctual abhorrent.
In any case, optimism is too broad a term to apply across the board to all aspects of one’s life. You might be optimistic about your ability to make sense of your customers’ requirements but pessimistic about the future of the planet, or optimistic about your career options but pessimistic about the weather forecast for next week’s game.
It turns out there’s actually a word for the kind of optimism that relates to punctuality: time optimism. A time optimist is someone who routinely misjudges how long it will take to accomplish a task. Time optimists think they can do more in a specified period of time than they actually can—as compared to time realists, who are realistic about how long things will take. Time realists plan accordingly and don’t put things off until the last possible minute. Planning accordingly means allowing adequate time to complete the task at hand or reducing the number of competing tasks.
Note that time optimists think tasks will take less time than they actually do. People who think tasks will take more time than they actually do are sometimes accused of padding the estimate, even though adding a fudge factor for unknowns is sometimes the best way to allow for unforeseen contingencies. What better way, after all, to be a time realist? But not everyone sees it that way.