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What Does "Ahead of Time" Mean?

Jim B.
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Ahead of time" is an English idiom that is used when something is occurring before a specific moment or milestone in time. It can be used to indicate that something is happening before a scheduled event. In other instances, "ahead of time" can refer to some task being accomplished at a pace that's significantly faster than the time it was originally intended to take. The phrase is uniquely expressive because it implies that a person can somehow actually get ahead of the march of time, which is impossible.

Many phrases become popular in a culture even though their literal meaning may not match up with the intended meaning when spoken. Certain words, when spoken together, take on a meaning all their own through popular use. These words and phrases are known as idioms, and the English language has many idioms devoted to time and the relationship of human beings to it. One of the most popular of these time idioms is the phrase "ahead of time."

The most common use of this phrase refers to the practice of people doing something before the arrival of a certain scheduled time. As an example, consider the sentence, "The movie starts at 5:30, but we should really try to get there ahead of time so we can get good seats." In this sentence, the "time" in question is 5:30. By arriving "ahead" of that time, it means that the people will be at the movie theater prior to 5:30.

Another way in which this phrase is commonly used is in reference to something that is being done at a pace faster than was originally expected. When used this way, the idiom is very similar to the phrase "ahead of schedule." As an example, consider the sentence, "The factory workers were expected to take three days to complete this project, but they've been working so hard that they are well ahead of time." In this case, the "time" in question is the three days the project was supposed to take. By working so well, it's implied that the job will be done far before that three-day period has elapsed.

Of course, there is no way that anyone can actually get "ahead of time" in reality. The phrase uses this bit of metaphor as a way to say something in a familiar and colloquial way. It provides a short-hand, colorful method of indicating when something is happening before a predetermined time.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By everetra — On Mar 12, 2012

@nony - Tell me about it. I struggle just trying to arrive to work on time many days. However, I agree that organization is key. I find that if I iron my clothes and prepare lunch (if I don’t eat out) the night before, and go to bed early, I am more likely to not only get to work on time, but also beat the rush hour traffic while I am at it.

By nony — On Mar 11, 2012

@allenJo - Are you a type A personality? Don’t you think personality types affect how well you can meet deadlines and be successful in your scheduling?

For example, I envision the type A personality as that person with his day timer who is always scheduling things day, weeks, months and even years in advance. This person in my opinion is more likely to get things done on time and even ahead of time.

I believe that organization makes all the difference in the world if you want to beat the clock.

By allenJo — On Mar 11, 2012

I work in the software industry, and one of the things that we always strive to do is to meet our deadlines ahead of time. Of course that’s easier said than done.

There are last minute bug fixes and additional enhancements that customers request. As a result we often find ourselves delayed in our release date. But I’ll tell, in this industry, if can find a project manager who can successfully get things done on time, and under budget, he will be well compensated.

Actually the reverse is true. If you can’t get things done quickly then as a project manager you may find yourself having to update your resume soon. At any rate meeting deadlines is kind of the holy grail in software development, and as a result people have developed different methods (like Agile development) to try to accelerate the development process and ensure the finished product is good, too.

By kylee07drg — On Mar 10, 2012

@turquoise – I work at a newspaper, and we are always struggling to meet deadlines. My boss often wants us to get things done ahead of time, and though “ahead of schedule” might be a more accurate phrase, I've never heard him use it.

He is always so nervous and high-strung that he probably thinks taking the time to say “schedule” would waste precious work moments. “Ahead of time” is a quick and easy way to let us know what he expects of us.

I once had to travel with him to a conference, and he was so badly wanting to get there ahead of time. I thought this meant maybe twenty minutes early, but instead, we got there a whole hour before the event started.

By bear78 — On Mar 10, 2012

@fify-- No, those two idioms really have nothing to do with each other. "Ahead of time" essentially means that you're "early." But being "ahead of your time" means that you are more progressive than other people of your time. You have ideas that only people in the future will think of.

You could also say the opposite- that you're "behind the times." That would mean that you haven't caught up to the ideas of the current time period just yet. For example, if someone refuses to adapt to the ideas, lifestyles and technologies of today, we could say that they're behind the times.

I know all of these idioms sound similar, especially because they all use the word "time." But they're not related in meaning. I think "ahead of time" is simpler and easier to understand than being ahead of or behind the times.

Ahead of time just means early. It could even be used literally. For example, I have a friend who lives in Eastern Europe and he is seven hours ahead of our time. The time where he lives is literally seven hours ahead of the time zone I'm in, here in the US.

By bagley79 — On Mar 09, 2012

I have always struggled with being on time. I finally got tired of rushing out the door and being stressed because of my own tardiness.

It hasn't been easy for me, but I have been really working at being ahead of time for any kind of appointment or place I need to be.

It is so much better being ahead of time than always running behind time. If I am going to an event, I get a better seat and a closer parking spot.

I have found that I can relax more and if I run into traffic problems, having the extra time makes such a difference in my attitude.

I still get lazy every so often and find myself slipping back in to my old ways. All the benefits of being ahead of time are good motivation for me to get back on track.

By julies — On Mar 09, 2012

@Mykol - I have also been in a situation where more is required of you because you get things done ahead of time.

I am a hard worker and take pride in what I do, but sometimes it can be frustrating. It seems like the more you push yourself to get something done ahead of time, the more that is expected of you in the future.

It can be hard to find a balance that everyone is happy with. I want to do a good job, but also don't want to be expected to continually raise the bar and do more all the time. If I can't do quality work without feeling pushed, nobody ends up pleased.

By Mykol — On Mar 08, 2012

@sunshined - Most people would feel good about getting things done ahead of schedule, but sometimes it might not be a positive thing for everybody.

Every few months, we have a big project at work that needs to be done. I have always worked hard to try and get things done ahead of schedule. I never like waiting until the last minute to get something done because you never know what might go wrong.

Many of my co-workers don't have this attitude, and they really give me a hard time about this because it makes them look bad.

While getting the tasks done ahead of time may be a positive thing for my boss, some of my co-workers can make things miserable for me at the same time.

By sunshined — On Mar 08, 2012

@fify - Yes, the literal meaning of "ahead of time" would be impossible. I have used this phrase so many times and never really gave a thought to what I was actually saying.

I just know that when I am getting ready for a big dinner at my house I try to get as many things done ahead of time as possible.

Thanksgiving dinner for both sides of our family is usually at our house, so there is always a lot of preparations and work that needs to be done.

One thing that has saved me some time is peeling the potatoes ahead of time. There are a lot of potatoes that need to be peeled, and if I can do this early and keep them in water, I am not rushing around so much at the last minute.

Any little thing I can do like this makes me less stressed. Getting something done ahead of time is always a positive thing for me.

By fify — On Mar 07, 2012
@orangey03-- I agree with you. I've never thought about the literal meaning. How can anyone possibly be "ahead of time", right?

I wonder if this idiom originated after "on time?" If you think about it, "on time" doesn't make much sense literally either. "Time" here is actually talking about the time of day in which something is planned or scheduled. So "on time" really means "on schedule," just like "ahead of time" really means "ahead of schedule." These two idioms seem similar this way.

By the way, does anyone know if the idiom "ahead of her time" or "ahead of his time" has anything to do with "ahead of time?"

By lighth0se33 — On Mar 06, 2012

I have heard another phrase similar to this spoken about people who had ideas that were very outstanding and advanced for the period of time that they were in. The phrase “ahead of his time” describes a man like this.

It usually refers to someone with scientific theories that the world thought them mad for having. Of course, these theories were always proven true, sometimes after the person who had them had long passed, showing that they were ahead of their time.

By turquoise — On Mar 06, 2012

This must be one of the few idioms in English which has not lost popularity over time. I hear this idiom being used often and in the same meaning that it was used in since it first came about.

I think "ahead of schedule" is used more when there is a deadline to meet and is usually relating to work or classes or something similar. "Ahead of time" is used in all other cases when you're doing something earlier than expected.

I use this idiom most often when I'm talking about going somewhere earlier than I need to or about cooking. For example, I like cooking pasta and sauce ahead of time when I'm planning on making lasagna. That way I can throw all the ingredients together and put it in the oven very quickly.

By orangey03 — On Mar 06, 2012

It's funny how we all use certain phrases so much that we don't really think about their literal meaning. I say I'm doing things “ahead of time” often, but I don't think I've once stopped and broken down the phrase.

I don't like crowds, so I'm constantly trying to get to restaurants and theaters ahead of the crowd. I always say I want to get there ahead of time, and that time is usually right around rush hour for restaurants and right before movies at the theater.

So, I am trying to get to places ahead of other people and ahead of the time that they will likely show up. It would probably be more accurate for me to say I want to get there ahead of the crowds.

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
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