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Planning to Overcome Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 2

Last Updated: January 7, 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. During that time, he also served as a worship leader, Bible teacher, and pastoral assistant. 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 Rexford, Montana with his wife Ruby and daughter Winslow.

In our last article, we looked at a “resource model” of willpower to accomplish your goals. This time we shift the focus from ourselves to our goals. What makes a goal work? How do you identify a good plan to accomplish that goal? What makes a bad plan? These are the questions that psychologists tackled when they developed “goal systems theory.”

“Goal systems” describe the connection between our goals and our motivation to carry them out. If you’ve ever lost the motivation to accomplish a goal (like quitting porn, for example), you might want to take notice.

How successful you’ll be in accomplishing your goal will depend on the strength of the mental associations between your goal and the steps to get there. The psychologists explain:

Goals and their associated means (i.e., the different pathways by which people can attain their goals) make up a hierarchical interconnected network called a goal system, and the strength of the various goal–means associations is what ultimately drives behavior. In other words, means that are more strongly associated with a specific goal are more likely to be selected than means that have a weaker connection.¹

Whoa, hold up—what does that mean in plain English?

Under the psycho-babble, there’s a pretty basic idea: simple plans succeed and fuzzy plans fail.

To be successful, you need to have really clear steps that are directly connected to your goal. The clearer the connection between those steps and your goal, the more motivation you have to complete it. When you lose sight of this connection or it becomes too complicated, you lose the willpower to continue.

So, if you’re one of the thousands of people resolving to quit porn this year, it’s essential to have a clear plan. “Goal systems theory” reveals four critical truths that shape your plans and determine whether they will succeed.

Your Motivations Are a Rollercoaster of Logic

Goal systems theory is an unapologetically “cognitive approach” to willpower and decision-making. In other words, it puts a big emphasis on your mental processes. But mental processes more complicated than you might think—and less logical than we’d hope. The authors explain:

Our cognitive activity hardly ever stops, not even in our sleep.  Our associations are in a constant flux, and our thoughts “ignite” each other in rapid succession. Many of these thoughts are motivational in nature; they represent our goals, the means to pursue them or discrepancies from goal-attainment.²

What does it mean, “our associations are in constant flux?” It means your plans to achieve your goals are constantly changing. Suppose your goal is “to be happy” (probably all of us have this goal in some shape or form). Because of its effects on your relationships, you realize that watching porn makes you unhappy. So, to accomplish your goal of being happy, you decide to give up porn.

But then you’re home alone, feeling lonely and sad, and you remember some of the good feelings that porn gave you. Boom! Your associations have changed. Suddenly, instead of porn getting in the way of your happiness goal, it seems like the next logical step you should take.

The logic of our decisions usually works subconsciously, often based on fleeting thoughts or feelings that wouldn’t make sense if examined more carefully. The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not.” Proverbs 16:2 agrees, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.”

Look closely at your motivation and you’ll see a wild rollercoaster ride of logic under the surface.

Ambiguity Is Motivation Poison

One of the key figures in the “goal systems” area of study is Dr. Arie Kruglanski at the University of Maryland. Dr. Kruglanski emphasizes what he calls the need for “closure.” He means certainty. While we are “open,” we’re uncertain about our plans—we’re still processing all kinds of information, suggestions, and so on. To make a decision, however, we need closure.

Confidence = Motivation

The more certain we feel, the more confident we’ll be to move forward with our plan. And what is it that makes us confident about a plan? It’s clarity and focus.

So, if you’re motivated to quit porn, but you’re not clear on the specific steps you need to take, you’ve got a problem. As long as you’re in that state of “openness,” you can’t really make a decision. Your natural tendency will be to take the steps you’re used to taking—which will likely keep you locked in the porn habit.

The Devil Is in the Details

So, have a clear plan to stay motivated. Got it. “Don’t look at porn.” 

But ambiguity creeps in when a plan isn’t detailed enough. “Don’t look at porn” is a very clear goal. But it’s not a detailed plan. It doesn’t account for a thousand and one little variables that could make that goal feel impossible—a porn pop-up, for example, a triggering sex scene in your favorite TV show, or some unexpected relationship struggles that leave you isolated, lonely, and desperate.

A plan that lacks detailed provisions for these situations is an ambiguous plan. Ambiguous plans poison your motivation.

You Need to Keep It Simple

Your plan needs enough detail to account for different circumstances, but it needs to be simple. “Goal systems theory” warns of too many associations with a particular goal. If there are LOTS of complicated steps, you’ll get overwhelmed and lose your motivation quickly.

Big breakdowns in willpower occur when conflicting goals get in the way. We veer off course and start following associations with other goals—like the association of relaxation and pleasure that casually browsing the internet have, which can lead a person to fall back into porn.

If your strategy to steer clear of porn has too many steps, or the individual steps have serious obstacles, you’ll quickly loose motivation and change course for something simpler. And there’s nothing simpler than the old habits that have kept you hooked on porn.

The Best Plan to Overcome Porn

What’s a simple plan that can handle the complexity of life? Something that can navigate the rollercoaster logic of your subconscious that tries to drag you off-track? A simple but adequately detailed plan is going to look like a flowchart. It’s going to clearly proceed from one step to the next. It’s also going to account for hiccups along the way—like the wild roller-coaster of emotions and the unexpected porn pop-ups.

Proverbs 16:9 says, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord directs their steps.” Take a moment to pray about your plan to quit porn, and ask God to direct your steps.

In over 20 years of helping people overcome porn, we’ve learned that accountability is one of the key steps that God has established for victory. For more details, see Dr. Doug Weiss’s popular post. How to Quit Porn: 6 Essential Steps.


¹Arie Kruglanski, James Shah, Ayelet Fishbach, Ron Friedman, Woo Young Chun, & David Sleeth-Keppler, “A theory of goal systems,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 34 (2002), 331-378. 10.1016/S0065-2601(02)80008-9.

²”Goal systems,” 332.