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How To De-Urgent Your Life

Our latest advice column taps 37signals co-founder David Hansson for tips on staying punctual, without losing your head.

One common misconception about design is that it's all about finding solutions to problems, as if they were math equations. But the best design thinking always starts by asking "why" rather than focusing on "how." That's what our latest advice-seeker seems to be in need of--so let's help him out:

"I hate being late to things. I've built systems at work to make sure I make my meetings on time. But my wife, on the other hand, is a true Italian and reminds me that being on time is actually rude. How do I get my wife in the habit of being there on time?"

I understand this guy's pain. I'm a degenerate procrastinator who also finds lateness stressful--a truly neurotic combination. My Google calendar is filled with multiple reminders for the most mundane obligations, always with a "worst-case scenario" amount of time built in ahead of them to account for contingencies. And yet every time I have to do a phone interview for work or get my toddler out the door for school, I find myself getting started just a smidge too late. No system I implement seems able to close the gap.

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I figured that David Hansson, co-founder of 37signals--a company famous both for its well-designed project management software and its unorthodox approach to meetings and other things people stress out about being late to--might have some insight into designing for the problem of punctuality.

Spoiler: it has nothing to do with building better systems or apps.

"No technical solution is going to get his wife into the habit of being on time," Hansson says. "He states the conclusion right in the question! It’s a cultural difference. As someone who spends a lot of time out of the year in Spain (another culture that doesn't stress out about lateness), I can only say: Good luck changing your wife."

David's a busy guy, so I worried that this characteristically blunt assessment--if you've read his book Rework, you'll recognize the tone--might be the extent of his advice. But he didn't simply mean that our advice-seeker should throw up his hands or just grit his teeth and bear it. Instead, he says, stop and back up a step. Are you trying to solve the wrong problem?

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"I think what the gentleman should perhaps rather focus on is how he can change his 'hate' of being late into something more suitable for the problem at hand," Hansson says. "Not every appointment is life-or-death whether you’re there 'on time.' Learn to differentiate between those moments where it really does matter and not to sweat those where it doesn’t."

In other words: consider why lateness universally bugs you, not just how to fix it. Instead of grasping for tools that will "make" you be more punctual regardless of context, take that context into account. Our world of dinging devices, always-on email, and overstuffed schedules adds a layer of manufactured urgency to almost everything. But it is, more often than not, just that: manufactured. Getting on the same page with your wife (or yourself) about what really matters will go a long way to solving the lateness "problem." If the two of you had a court appearance to keep, I'd bet that your Italian wife would require little persuasion to be on time.

Hansson also recommends tailoring your expectations. "The fewer obligations you have, the easier they are to keep," he says. "Keep everyone’s plate small. Don’t try to do a lot of things, just a few that really matter." It's another method of de-urgenting your life. If making it to a certain appointment on time, or even early, is a real priority, recognize that fact and make it clear--and compensate by allowing some "give" on other things to make room for that importance. Odds are, things won't fall apart.

The alternative is using 37signals' to nag your wife about her time management--and who wants that?

[Got a situation in your life that needs some design thinking? Drop me a line: jpavlus@fastcompany.com]

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