Always 5 Minutes Late? Here's Why

By Amanda Botfeld on July 22, 2013

Have you ever found yourself running late to one class? And another? And another? And for some reason, no matter how hard you try, the outcome is always the same: five minutes late.

Or the opposite happens.

You’re running early. You’re running early to everything: your class, your job, your morning workout? Even when you get stuck waiting in an extra long line, or talking to an unexpected acquaintance, the result is always the same: five minutes early.

For some reason, people are usually not late to one class and early to another. They are usually always late, always early, or always right on time.

Why do you think that is?

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, habits are unsurprisingly to blame.

In his book, Duhigg explains how people operate within “Habit Loops.” A habit loop has three parts:

1) Cue

2) Routine

3) Reward

Here’s a typical habit loop: your alarm goes off (cue), you press snooze (routine), you get sleep (reward).

Furthermore, once a behavioral pattern becomes locked inside the brain, it never goes away. That habit loop will always be there.

This has its benefits too.

Imagine how much wasted brain power it would take if each and every morning you had to deliberate which shoe to put on first. Chances are, you don’t even think about it. You either put on the left or right foot first. It’s effortless.

But what if you’re caught inside of a habit loop you don’t like? What if you have “bad habits”?

Here’s the tricky part:

As soon as the initial cue happens, your brain already anticipates the reward. Cues create cravings. For example, here’s what happens when we see a box of doughnuts:

“‘Once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.’”

So as soon as that alarm goes off, your brain is already anticipating the reward of going back to sleep  even if you’re not tired. Just like the doughnuts, regardless of whether you are actually hungry or not, you still have to fight that craving.

But not all hope is lost.

Although those hard-wired patterns will always be there, new patterns can be created from the same cues.

Duhigg calls this “The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It.”

The key is creating a new reward.

Tempted to press the snooze button? Try putting a gold star on your calendar instead. Over time, instead of craving those extra five minutes, your brain will start to crave that little rush you get after putting on that gold star. Your brain will start anticipating the endorphin release, and you may just find yourself hopping out of bed automatically.

So, are you late to class? Late to everything? Chances are you’re stuck in a habit loop.

(It may even be more than one. Ever get that rush when you made it right on time, just under the wire? Your brain may be craving that adrenaline rush long before class even starts  and it will subconsciously adjust your behavior accordingly).

It also helps to look at what exactly it is you’re craving. Is it stimulation? Is it a rush?

You may want to try a replacement, at least temporarily. One recommendation is coffee. Just as numerous studies show that caffeine in the afternoon increases the odds of quitting of cigarettes, Duhigg suggests trying to find a similar pay-off. If the reason you’re late to class is because you crave that rush, and you don’t want to be there early because you fear boredom, try a different activity. Play a game on your cellphone in the five minutes of leeway. Eventually, your brain will start to crave the enjoyment of Angry Birds, anticipating that rush, and you might just find yourself caught inside of a new habit loop: five minutes early.

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