How Not to Be Late: A Self-Help Guide for Bill de Blasio

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Most of us have a friend who is never on time, who is constantly sending out texts like, "Running late, there in ten!" For my friends, it’s me. For the city of New York, it’s Bill de Blasio. On Tuesday, we learned that the perpetually late mayor was 15 minutes late to a special holiday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral — he was running late, you see, because he’d started the day arriving late to a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast held in his own home. The mayor doesn’t have the best track record this year when it comes to St. Pat’s celebrations: Two weeks earlier, he was 20 minutes late to a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens. 

These, of course, are only the most recent late arrivals for de Blasio: In December, he held up an entire plane of JetBlue passengers because he arrived at the airport just ten minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off. My colleague Jessica Roy recently rounded up all the instances of Hizzoner’s lateness from the past year and a half — and those were only the times that have shown up in media reports.  

The easy de Blasio joke is about getting him a better alarm clock, which the New York Post went ahead and did last year. But asking a perpetually late person to arrive on time is about as simple as asking a night owl to go to bed early: It’s doable, sure, but not easy. Research links punctuality to certain personality traits — mostly conscientiousness, which, of course, makes intuitive sense. (Conscientious types tend to be self-disciplined, organized, and generally on top of things.) And as I’ve written before, it’s possible to change your personality, but it takes work to fight against your natural instincts.

With that in mind, here’s some advice on how to not be late. (You’re welcome, Mr. Mayor.) 

First, figure out what “on time” means to the person you’re meeting. Punctuality is sometimes incredibly important, like, oh, when you’re scheduled to appear at a memorial service at which a bell is going to ring at exactly the time a plane crashed 13 years ago, at exactly 9:16 a.m. But sometimes you can give yourself a break, depending on who you’re meeting.

Generally speaking, people’s definitions of what “on time” means are pretty variable, even in the formal context of the workplace, according to a study published last year. Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte asked 665 survey respondents from across the world an open-ended question: How would you define being “late” to a work meeting? About half gave pretty standard definitions, with 20 percent defining “late” as arriving after the start time and another 30 percent saying it meant showing up after the meeting had already started, but another 20 percent thought they weren’t really “late” until after a grace period of up to ten minutes, for example.

Things get a lot more confusing when you take broader cultural differences into account. If you’re attending a meeting in Ghana, for example, if you show up on time you might want to bring a book, since you could be waiting for a while. So it’s all about context: If everyone else is late to an event, you’re fine; not so much when you’re supposed to sign your first bill as mayor, on the other hand.

Be a “time pessimist.” I love this phrase, which appeared in a 2007 blog post by career mentor Penelope Trunk. Sometimes people who consistently run late fall into the trap of just one more thing: Just one more email, one more errand, one more household chore before heading to the time-sensitive event. We really believe there’s enough time to get it all done, but — according to research — we have no business making estimations concerning time. “Assume everything will take a little longer than your first estimate,” Trunk advised.

It’s particularly important advice for chronically late people, because there’s some evidence they are simply worse at accurately gauging the passage of time than punctual people. In a 1990 paper, Donna R. Richard and Steve Slane of Cleveland State University first assessed whether a group of study participants tended to be on time, both by simply asking them and by noting what time they arrived to the lab. Then they gave them a stopwatch and asked them to hit stop at exactly 20 seconds. The punctual people were better at the task than the late ones, who were consistently late to hit the button — a partial explanation, perhaps, for why when late people say they’ll be there in 10, they arrive in 20.

Wear a wristwatch. Relying on your phone to check the time can easily lead to distractions, mostly of the social variety, like texts and Twitter notifications. A study on tardiness habits in the workplace by San Diego State University’s Jeff Conte suggested that people who are prone to doing many things at once also tend to show up late for work. Do one thing at a time, and wear a time-keeping device that does the same.

Try a little empathy. Susan K. Whitbourne, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, believes there is likely a link between chronic lateness and a narcissistic streak. “They only see situations from their point of view, so they think that what they’re doing is more important than what the other people are doing,” she said in an email. “If this means that others have to wait for them, so be it.” Whether or not narcissism is at the root of de Blasio’s (or anyone else’s) tardiness habit, it never hurts to try imagining yourself in someone else’s position. “One of the cures for egocentrism is developing a sense of empathy,” Whitbourne said. “Put yourself in the place of the person or people you’ve kept waiting. How do you feel when you have to wait around for someone who’s always late?”

Hire someone to lie to you. For what it’s worth, several of the researchers I talked to while putting this post together suggested that a mayoral aide should get in the habit of telling little white lies, pretending to the boss that he needs to be somewhere 30 minutes before he actually has to be there. I’ve been on the de Blasio end of that trick; last summer, my clever best friend told her wedding party to be at the rehearsal at 6:30 when we really didn’t need to be there until 7. It worked: We were all there on time. Even me.