Bad habits that Americans have — and have given up

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
December 20, 2022, 5:52 PM GMT+0

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't have at least one habit they'd prefer to do away with: behavior such as staying up too late, skipping the gym, or having a few too many cups of coffee. In a series of recent polls, YouGov asked Americans to tell us about their so-called bad habits, defined as habits they believe negatively affect their lives and wish they could change.

To identify the types of habits that people deem bad for themselves, we first conducted a poll asking people who identified as having any bad habits to tell us in their own words what those habits are. The responses to this question informed the design of a second, more-exhaustive survey, the results of which are published in this article. In the second survey, conducted over two polls each of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens September 28 — October 10, 2022, we asked 2,000 Americans whether they'd ever had any of 30 randomly selected bad habits —out of 57 polled about overall which bad habits they'd successfully gotten rid of; and how problematic they deem the ones they still have to be. Among the findings: not exercising enough is the most common bad habit, not saving enough money is the most serious, screen-time before bed may be the hardest to quit, and all three are more likely to be claimed by women than by men.

What bad habits have Americans had?

Sloth is a common theme in the troublesome behaviors Americans are most likely to say they've made a habit of. The top five are: not exercising enough, not saving enough money, procrastinating, sleeping too little, and staying up late. Gluttony falls in sixth place, with nearly half of Americans saying they've been in the habit of eating too much at some point in their lives. Other issues each named by at least one in three Americans include caffeine, screen time, messiness, overwork, and smoking or vaping.

While men and women are equally likely to partake in many of the same negative behaviors, there are some bad habits with significant gender differences. Women, for example, are more likely than men to say they exercise too little, overeat, look at screens before bed, bite their nails, or shop excessively. Men, on the other hand, are more likely than women to say they've been in the habit of drinking alcohol, playing video games, using marijuana, gambling, or watching pornography.

What bad habits have Americans quit?

The word "habit" in bad habit suggests it is something a person does nearly automatically and therefore that breaking it isn't easy, likely requiring some degree of willpower or intervention. We asked people who said they'd had each habit at some point in their lives if they still have it, or if they used to have it but no longer do. While other factors likely also play a role, the share of people who ever had a bad habit who no longer do may serve as a rough proxy for how intent Americans are to break certain bad habits and how easy they find them to quit.

The two habits that the largest share of people said they had quit are ones with major recovery groups dedicated to – using drugs other than marijuana (68% said they'd given this up) and drinking alcohol (63%). When it comes to quitting the use of other substances, half of people (49%) who say they've had a bad habit of smoking or vaping say they've quit this habit. People who say caffeine intake has been a problem in their lives are less likely to have given it up: Just 29% say they have.

Among the least likely bad habits to have been quit are ones involving technology — including engaging in screen time before bed and spending too much time on your phone or social media. Other habits that only one in three or fewer have quit involve bodily functions, such as slouching, burping, and farting. Certain sleep-related habits — such as staying up too late, sleeping too little, and snoring — are still currently engaged in by a majority of people who reported having them, while others — such as bedwetting, sleepwalking, and sleep talking — are no longer a problem for most people who have had each of them at some point in their lives.

How problematic are the bad habits that Americans still have?

Some bad habits are mildly inconvenient, while others are life-altering. We asked people who said they currently have each habit how much of a problem it is in their life at the present moment. Below, we present the results of these questions for habits that at least 100 respondents said they currently have.

Money-related habits are among the ones most likely to be viewed as "a big problem," including not saving enough money, not paying bills on time, and spending too much money. Eating-related habits — including eating too much as well as too little — also rank highly on the list of habits deemed very problematic. At least one in three who have one of several sleep-related habits — including sleeping too much and too little — say it presently is a big problem for them. Habits involving bodily functions — such as burping, nose-picking, nail-biting, knuckle-cracking, and farting — are seen as less of an issue among people who currently have them and wish they didn't.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article.

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The poll was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys conducted from September 28 - October 3, 2022 and October 6 - 10, 2022, with each survey conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 2.4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (Viacheslav Yakobchuk)