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Your Most Precious Resource Against Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 1

Last Updated: January 3, 2022

Keith Rose
Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree and BA in Sacred Music. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. He has also served as a Bible teacher, pastoral assistant, and music director at his local church. He's now the editor of the Covenant Eyes blog and the author of Allied: Fighting Porn With Accountability, Faith, and Friends. He lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina with his wife Ruby and daughter Winslow.

Why is it so difficult to resist temptation? Why do goals and resolutions to quit seem to diminish over time? At Covenant Eyes, we care about the willpower to overcoming porn.

The field of research into self-control and willpower offers the tantalizing promise of unlocking your potential.  In this series of articles, I’m examining seven perspectives on willpower. Each perspective is a different angle on quitting porn, with new insight into our motivations and how to manage them.

In 2011, John Tierney and the psychologist Roy Baumeister published Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. This bestseller describes willpower as a finite resource. The key to accomplishing your goals is learning how to preserve—and renew—your willpower. Baumeister explains his thesis:

The core idea is that the self’s ability to regulate behavior is limited by a resource that becomes depleted with effort. In other words, willpower is limited.¹

So how does this precious resource work? We have already explored the limitations of willpower here. But examining Baumeister’s work in greater detail reveals six important lessons about willpower and what it means for overcoming porn.

Cookies and Radishes Show the Cost of Willpower

Dr. Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a famous psychological experiment involving chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and two groups of test subjects.

The first group was brought into room where a plate of freshly baked cookies was sitting on a table next to some radishes. The tantalizing aroma filed the room, but Dr. Baumeister instructed the subjects to eat the radishes—not the cookies. After a few minutes of the cookie-radish torture, the test subjects were taken into another room and given puzzles. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzles were actually impossible to solve.

The second group was given the same unsolvable puzzles, but they got to skip the cookie-radish torture. As the researchers suspected, the test subjects (victims?) who had to resist the delicious smell of chocolate gave up very quickly—much more quickly than those who hadn’t faced the temptation of the cookies.

When it comes to resisting porn, this tells us that our willpower is limited. When life puts demands on us—resisting cookies, doing our work, or dealing with relationships—we pay the heavy cost in willpower.

You Should Learn to Identify Your Radishes

Willpower is limited, so you need to be careful to use what you have to accomplish what you really want to. If you’re main objective is to work the puzzles, then don’t waste your energy saying no to the cookies.

If you spread yourself too thin, you will fail to accomplish your goals. Baumeister explains:

Because any act of self-regulation can deplete the resource, a person who is attempting to quit drugs should avoid exerting self-regulation for other purposes (such as dieting, or completing a difficult assignment at work) while quitting.²

So, what are the things that drain your willpower? What are your “radishes”? For Baumeister, this is a critical question if you want to change an unwanted habit like watching porn.

At Covenant Eyes, we call them “triggers,” because they’re signals to your brain that trigger an urge to look at porn. When you push back against those urges, it drains your willpower. What sorts of things can be “triggers”?

  • A sexy lingerie ad that pops-up while your browsing
  • Muscular sunbathers at the beach
  • A steamy love scene in your favorite TV show

You get the idea. In today’s world, it’s impossible to avoid sexual triggers completely. Even if you have established the habit of looking away, these triggers can whittle away at your willpower. But there are other triggers as well. Therapists commonly use the acronym HALT for some of the most common triggers:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

As Baumeister suggests, trying to exercise self-control in your diet will leave you with fewer resources to combat the temptation to porn. Everyone’s triggers are different, but there’s one common thread: they are all around us. And all these things steal away your willpower and leave you helpless against porn temptation. So, are you hopeless to fight your temptations?

Baumeister and his colleagues don’t think so. They believe you can conserve and renew your willpower—more on that in a moment.

Willpower Swings a Double-Edged Sword

Before we get to renewing willpower, here’s an important point: willpower swings a double-edged sword.

What does this mean? Difficult tasks demand lots of willpower. Easy tasks require much less. But even the easier decisions we make are an act of will. According to Baumeister, addictive behaviors—whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or porn—are an exercise of our willpower. Even addiction is a form self-control.

Baumeister’s formulation might seem confused, but he explains why he believes it’s important:

[A]ddicts use conscious processes to regulate their addictive behaviors in each stage of addiction: i.e., the stage before regular use, the stage of regular use, the stage of quitting or reducing use, and the stage of maintaining sobriety (or reduced levels of use).³

So what’s the point observation? Even someone acting out in unwanted behavior is using willpower in some form. He doesn’t want us to bemoan our lack of self-control. Recognize that willpower was involved in the formation of habits, and it’s likewise going to be required to get out of them.

The underlying idea is: take responsibility. Even if your porn watching is completely out of control at this point, you still have to own it. Even if you’ve used up all your willpower to resist, you can’t blame anyone else.

It’s a harsh reality, but that’s the double-edged sword of willpower, and it also points to the path forward.

You Can Power-Up Your Willpower

One of Baumeister’s suggestions is training your willpower to develop it like a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Your efforts to train willpower in one area will transfer to another.

As you level-up your willpower, it conserves your energy for the things that really matter. Just like the exercise of willpower that gets us into bad habits (porn, for example), we can exercise willpower and learn good habits that will save our energy in the long run.

However, Baumeister advises training outside the context where you’ll need your willpower to resist the temptation. As an example, he says that if you’re trying to quit smoking, additional training will deplete you further, since your willpower won’t have time to recover from the exercise before you need it to resist the urge to smoke.

At Covenant Eyes, we encourage you to develop new hobbies and habits to replace porn!

But, be careful. Your physical muscles have limits, and so does your willpower. You can get a lot stronger, but you’ll never be able to strap a car on your back and run up a mountain!

There’s Power in Precommitment

Even if you level-up your willpower, it’s still a limited resource. However, we can take a better approach: precommitment. Precommitment means working around your need for willpower by pre-selecting your course of action:

The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path. Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded.4

What does this look like for overcoming porn? In Willpower, Baumeister reflects:

[T]he technology that creates new sins also enables new precommitment strategies. A modern Odysseus can try lashing himself to his browser with software that prevents him from hearing or seeing certain web sites… You could install software from Covenant Eyes that will track your Web browsing.5

The point is, you can give your willpower a break by limiting the options you’ll have later on. Covenant Eyes’ software is one way to do this.

Relationships Renew Motivation

Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the real value precommitment holds in accountability. The Willpower book actually suggests that fear of shame and embarrassment will keep from watching porn.

That’s not the point! As we’ve noted elsewhere, shame and embarrassment can drive you deeper into unwanted behaviors. The power of accountability is in its human connection. Relationships renew motivation.

Baumeister recognizes this in a 1995 article titled, “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.” He describes human connection as as basic instinct—we need to be known and loved:

[H]uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments. People seek frequent, affectively positive interactions within the context of long-term, caring relationships.6

If you or someone you love is trying to quit porn, remember this last insight! Relationships are key to renewing your willpower. They are a fundamental—without them, no amount of willpower will succeed. That’s why Hebrews 3:13 says to “encourage one one another every day.” Our willpower is weak and we need help!

Looking at willpower as a resource is only the first perspective. Keep reading this series for more insights into finding the willpower to quit porn!


¹Andrew & Maranges Vonasch, Heather & Roy Baumeister “Self-regulation, controlled processes, and the treatment of addiction: Rethinking the relationship,” (2016). 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198727224.003.0016.

²”Self-regulation,” 6-7.

³”Self-regulation,” 2.

4 John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), 151.

5 Willpower, 152.

6 R. F. Baumeister & M.R. Leary, “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation” Psychological Bulletin, 117 (1995): 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

  • Comments on: Your Most Precious Resource Against Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 1
    1. My personal experience has been that “willpower is a muscle” is a better model than “willpower is a finite resource”. I find that if I’m tempted to slough off in any area of discipline (say diet, chores, my exercise program, quiet time, meetings, etc) then I’m more vulnerable specifically to the sexual temptations. I’m not into running oneself ragged, but I’m finding that good time management skills and sticking to personal goals and commitments are really important components of my recovery.

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