Dr. Roy Baumeister has been acclaimed as one of the world’s leading psychologists. He authored the bestselling Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, which offers a compelling explanation of how our willpower works.
Dr. Baumeister also reveals some powerful secrets to level up your willpower over the temptation to look at porn.
Your willpower is a finite resource.
You produce willpower naturally as a resource, just like the earth produces oil or gold. But like oil and gold, the amount of willpower you produce is limited—which makes it extremely valuable.
What happens if you use up your willpower? Then you give in to your strongest impulses. Without willpower, you’re helpless against your worst tendencies, such as the desire to look at porn.
This tells us something very important about the fight against porn: you’re going to need a better strategy than just “try harder.” If you only have a limited amount of willpower, what can you do?
You should train your willpower like a muscle.
Although your willpower will always be limited, you can still maximize its strength. To do this, you need to develop your willpower like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you practice self-control and discipline, and the stronger it becomes. Your efforts to train willpower in one area will transfer to another.
As you level up your willpower, this conserves your energy for the things that really matter. It’s similar to other forms of exercise. When you first start running, it’s absolutely exhausting. But, as your endurance and form improve, the same amount of output requires less energy because you’re stronger and more efficient.
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. No matter how much you level up, your willpower is always finite.
Pre-commit and bypass the need for willpower.
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.”1
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.”2
The point is that 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.
Find relationships to renew your willpower.
The power of accountability is in its human connection. Relationships renew motivation. Baumeister explained this in a 1995 article—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.”3
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 another every day.” Our willpower is weak and we need help!
1 John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), 151.
2 Willpower, 152.
3 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