Blockers (alone) won’t save you

Website and app blockers are useful in this age of information overload. Just not for compulsions.

When you fail to stop craving and don’t “ride out the wave“, you’ll do whatever it takes to get your vice. Even if you bury a box with the password in it halfway around the world.

Of course, there’s a threshold. I’ve found leaving my password with no way to reset it in the care of a guy from my support group helpful. Then I found an offline version of the content I wanted. Sigh.

This is why, although I said before I’d review some blockers I’ve used, my opinion has flipped.

I don’t use blockers anymore. Though I still have thoughts about looking at my vice.

While it took me a long time to get there, and I’m still not out of the woods yet, I thought I’d share my experience on why blockers (alone) won’t save you.

A cartoon elephant holding a stop sign prevents passage. But there's another path beside him...
There is another path, you know…

Blockers aren’t perfect

With the exception of Cold Turkey, which doesn’t support mobile devices or Linux (what I use), every blocker has exploitable holes. Given dedication (craving), you’ll find them.

That’s why cold turkey (uncapitalized) is a recipe for failure.

As long as it’s possible to bypass, and it always is, you’ll find a way around it. If you’re tired after a long, bad day and your vice offers you the only or best antidote, boom, cue, and boom, reward. Hence why behavioral compulsions like binge-watching are more insidious than consumptive ones like binge-drinking: your (de)vice is always within reach. No need to go buy some.

Instead of locking it away in a breakable box, physical or digital, you’ve got to fight the craving.

Charles Duhigg, in his bestseller The Power of Habit, calls habits energy-saving brain devices, like a smooth road through familiar territory. They conserve energy for more difficult, immediate tasks. That’s why willpower, when you’re depleted of it, isn’t enough to kick a bad habit.

See also:
Taming Lightning: Redirect addiction triggers with the habit loop

His golden rule goes: Cue -> Routine -> Reward.

You can try to avoid cues, but you can’t prevent them. Nor should you try. As for the reward, let’s listen to Dan from my support group again.

“Recovery isn’t denying the need, it’s replacing the bad stuff with good stuff until the good stuff tastes better.” – Dan

You need to change the routine (how you react to the cue) and replace the reward with a healthy alternative. This is the argument behind why e-cigarettes help some smokers quit.

The hard part is unearthing what psychological need your vice fulfills. (See my kintsugi article)

For now, know that blockers thwart that need, and you will be miserable if you don’t meet it.

…but they do work if it’s devastating to fail

Let’s take StickK as an example. It’s a habit-changing and goal-sticking-to app, so it’s not a website blocker, but its success lies with one trick. The pain of hurting someone you care about or helping someone you don’t like motivates its users through fear.

See, people focus on negative outcomes more than possible positive ones.

For instance, heads, you win $10,000. Tails, you lose $10,000. Would you take that chance? Because most people wouldn’t, even though it’s a fair game. The pain of a potential loss outweighs the windfall.

coin flip
To consume or not to consume…

So visualizing someone’s disappointed face or donating money to a radical branch of whatever political party you oppose helps keep you in line.

In other words, your motivation for erasing bad habits works better than any blocker, especially when it’s negative.

So long as you meet that psychological need.

But the problem with an external tool is when you remove the tool, you remove your motivation.

You don’t get a song out of your head by trying to stop thinking about it. You replace it with a better song. And the more you do it, according to neuroplasticity, the smoother the road in your brain becomes.

Your brain proves that physically, scientifically, it gets easier over time. But blockers and tools don’t block the urge. Your brain still craves, and when the blocker goes away, even after you think you’ve healed…

Boom, cue, and boom, reward. The alternative?

The best blockers are in your head

My pornography habit stems from a desire for love and a fix for my low self-esteem. I liked “romantic” porn where the woman smiled and it looked lovey. First-person. It took me five years to figure that out.

Because I wasn’t getting what I believe is my oxytocin fix, I suffered with blockers in place… until I started talking to people more and stockpiling self-esteem through this blog. I also found compassion for women (and men) who suffer devastating insecurity due to pornography helpful. And metta meditation.

Why am I telling you this? Because I don’t use a blocker now. I replaced that “love” with a healthier “love”: kindness and connection.

Though to be fair, blockers are like training wheels. If you have a compulsion to check the news multiple times a day, they can stop you from accessing your favorite site. You can’t block all news, though. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Because Cue -> Routine -> Reward.

Cue -> Routine -> Reward.
Change your routine (firing up a private window), change your reward (a friend tsk-tsk’ing at your undeletable browser history).
The best routine involves near wins and the best reward is an intermittent, healthy alternative. (Though you can also reward yourself with your vice.)

If you rely only on blockers, you will fail. You will be miserable. And you will, to relieve the suffering, return to your vice.


Read this post again. It’s everything.

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