Two paths to motivation

All practice is a matter of both careful habit and meaningful philosophy.  Photo by CATHY PHAM on Unsplash

There are broadly two types of motivation:

  1. Unconscious or automatic motivation
  2. Conscious or controlled motivation
Automatic motivation is mainly linked to your rituals and habits; conscious motivation is mainly linked to your philosophy and patterns of meaning.  It’s more complicated than that (they cross-fertilise), but, roughly speaking, that’s how people work.


It’s embarrassing but true, that most of the things you do are from well-developed habit.  From the moment you wake up, you have well-rehearsed patterns of thought that are more a matter of ingrained habit than careful planning.

Much of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has at its root the idea that we develop dysfunctional habits of mind which we have not bothered to test in reality – we just think and do things because we have done them before, and created a well-worn automatic path.


You will also notice that, in moments of contemplation and consideration, you are capable of identifying changes you would like to make.

You might come to suspect that something is seriously wrong with your existing philosophy (often prompted by a relationship break-up, the loss of a job, or a bereavement).

Equally, you might stumble upon a new philosophy that seems attractive or reasonable to you.  Because it fits your requirements for a good philosophy, you might feel motivated to make changes to the rest of your life to better align yourself with this new philosophy.

The more meaning-based psychotherapies have at their root the idea that life is in part an exploration and discovery of personal purpose, from which helpful new habits can stem.


Unconscious habits, and more conscious philosophies, overlap.  The overlap works both ways:

  1. Travelling outwards from habit.  A number of unconscious habits can coalesce to create an apparent alignment towards a conscious philosophy.  An example is a person who grows up in a religious family, unconsciously adopts most of the habits, and then later consciously assents to the underlying philosophical system of that religion.

  2. Travelling outwards from philosophy.  A new way of thinking can spawn a host of adjusted habits and rituals.  An example is a person who discovers a religion that makes significant sense to them, and then, through repeated exposure to a community of ritual, adopts new habits aligned with the new philosophy.

Our brains, too, work on both automatic and controlled systems.  Roughly speaking, we have an ‘older’ brain which steadily establishes habits through repetition, and a ‘newer’ brain which can inhibit old habits, and establish new patterns of meaning.

An example is how we learn a language.  We learn much through fairly mindless ritual exposure and repetition.  But we can also learn a lot through engaging our conscious brain in working out how the target language works.  The first method is more associative, and the second requires more mental control and critical evaluation.


If you only use one path, then the other path can reduce your success.

For example, let’s say you plan to diet or exercise.

Two things can go wrong:

  1. You can bring in new habits and rituals, but your philosophy may not be strong or consistent enough to back up the habits.  A few days later, your conscious mind will find philosophical ‘out clauses’, and you will end up rationalising failure.

  2. You can bring in a new philosophy, but your habits and rituals may not be strong or consistent enough to back up the philosophy.  A few days later, your automatic mind will break back into your old habits, and you will end up drifting back into failure.
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Broadly speaking, we have two parts to our motivational mind – an automatic, habit-forming part; and a controlled, philosophy-forming part.

To remain well-motivated, we need to attend to our rituals and habits, but also to our philosophy and patterns of meaning.

Some psychotherapies, such as CBT, often focus on challenging and changing our existing habits. Other psychotherapies, such as person-centred counselling, often focus on helping us to discover patterns of meaning strongly aligned to who we are and how we would like to devleop.

Using both parts of our minds, the habit part and the philosophy part, gives us the best chance of success.