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The Process of Quitting Porn: Perspectives on Willpower 5

Last Updated: January 26, 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.

So far, the perspectives we’ve examined in this series have each focused on one particular aspect of willpower: willpower itself, as a resource. There’s the relationship between your goals and willpower. We’ve considered the role of feedback with cybernetic control, and we’ve looked at how values inform decision-making.

Now, we start to combine some of these different pieces into what some have called the “process model” of willpower. This perspective has been developed in particular by Dr. Angela Duckworth, viral TED talk speaker and author of the bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

The process model sees self-control as a process—no surprise here. This really means is that there’s a cycle we go through when we face temptation. First, we see something we want. Next, we think about how it would make us happy or meet some need. Third, our desire for that thing increases.

Self-control means interrupting the temptation cycle as early as possible to ensure effective self-control. In an article titled “Situational Strategies for Self-Control,” Duckworth and her colleagues explain:

 Using the process model of self-control, we argue that the full range of self-control strategies can be organized by considering the timeline of the developing tempting impulse. Because impulses tend to grow stronger over time, situational self-control strategies—which can nip a tempting impulse in the bud—may be especially effective in preventing undesirable action.¹

We can use the acronym “ACE” as an easy way to remember this three-step process of using willpower.

Avoid Triggers

Summarizing of number of process model studies, Michael Inzlicht and his colleagues write:

According to the process model, such strategies include situation selection (i.e., intentionally choosing to be in an environment that is aligned with one’s goal and/or eliminates temptation) and situation modification (i.e., changing some aspect of the environment to reduce or remove temptations).²

First, redirect attention away from the tempting thing—that means avoiding triggering images to look at porn. At Covenant Eyes, we talk a lot about triggers! That’s because triggers factor into our willpower to resist temptation. Failing to deal with triggers is a recipe for disaster.

In their book Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time, Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker coined the phrase “bouncing the eyes.” It means training yourself to automatically look away when confronted with a sexually tempting image.

However, don’t forget that “avoiding triggers” means turning your attention to other things. Don’t just bounce the eyes—redirect them to positive, life-giving images. Learn to appreciate art. Better yet, try your hand at painting. Get outdoors and soak in some nature.

See our Hobbies and Habits ebook for more practical strategies to retrain your mind to avoid porn and seek the good!

Change Your Beliefs

The second part of the process is changing your beliefs about porn. This is similar to what we saw with the “accounting perspective” of willpower. It’s about informing yourself on the pros and cons of the decision. It could also include some aspects of the “planning perspective” of goal systems theory—know the right steps to accomplish your goals.

Educating yourself on the dangerous effects of porn and the evils of the porn industry can go a long ways to renewing your willpower to resist.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of the downsides of porn and why you need to resist. But reading these articles isn’t just about getting new information; it’s about reminding yourself of your beliefs.

Of course, it’s equally important to change your beliefs about yourself.

Engage Your Willpower

The third stage is engaging willpower. This last part of the process is similar to what we saw in the resource model of willpower given by Baumeister. Taken in conjunction with the first two steps, it’s easy to see how the process model can give your willpower a boost—you can conserve willpower for when you really need it by setting yourself up for success.

Passion and Perseverance

There’s a key difference from the resource model, however. In Grit, Dr. Duckworth explains her concept of willpower as “grittiness.” Grit, she has observed, is a defining characteristic in highly successful people:

In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of furious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.³

So then, if willpower is the fuel for our self-control, then passion and clear-headed direction are the fuel for our willpower. Maintaining excitement and desire for the goal is critical for attaining it.

The Power of “Not Yet”

A similar observation is noted by the psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. According to Dweck, our willpower isn’t limited because we run out. She argues that willpower is limited by our mindset. How do we see ourselves? How do we see our successes and failures? (Here, you’ll note echoes of the way cybernetic control handles feedback based on identity.) In a talk at Stanford University, Dr. Dweck lectured on “the power of yet.” She related the story of a school where students were not given failing grades but instead were graded “not yet.” This grade, she says, gave them a path into the future.4

This concept of “not yet” is essential for conquering your goals—including the goal to overcome porn for good.

A Word of Caution

The “ACE” process can enhance your progress against porn.  However, as we noted before with cybernetic control, even a powerful mindset shift can be inadequate in the face of uncontrollable behavior.

While researchers like Dr. Duckworth and Dr. Dweck offer inspiring insights from their studies of success, the process approach to self-control my be less effective for dealing with unwanted behaviors. If you’ve tried and failed to quit porn, grit and positive thinking alone won’t sustain your willpower to resist!

We need people in our lives who can help us renew our mindset, refresh our willpower, and point us back onto the right path.


¹A.L. Duckworth, T.S. Gendler, & J.J. Gross, “Situational Strategies for Self-Control,” Perspectives on Psychological Science (2016):35-55. doi:10.1177/1745691615623247

²Michael Inzlicht, K. M. Werner, J. L. Briskin, & B. W. Roberts, “Integrating Models of Self-Regulation” Annual Review of Psychology (2021): 327. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-061020-105721.

³ Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Scribner (2016), 10.

4 Carol Dweck, “Developing a Growth Mindset,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ.