Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Motivation to Learn

CBT is a powerful tool in psychology for changing behavior. Best of all, it was designed to be something you can do on your own.

Sometimes it is possible to take research from one field of science and apply it to another. In the Great Courses Series on “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” the lecturer encourages us to do exactly that. So, let’s take a look at CBT and see if there’s a way to apply it to motivation and learning.

Motivation to learn is a topic I’ve covered from a few different angles in the past. CBT has something different to offer, though. It is a system for conditioning (or reconditioning) yourself. For changing behaviors.

CBT has been the focus of so much attention because of the multiple studies which show that it is just as effective as drug-based (pharmacological) treatments. It’s appealing to think that there’s a simple “talk-based” approach to fixing a problem, instead of popping a pill. CBT was originally developed to treat depression but has been successfully used on a host of other psychological goals: anger management, insomnia, and many others. It’s not much of a leap at all to use it for motivation, and in fact, we’ll see that many effective motivational strategies share a lot of commonalities with CBT.

One of the first times I successfully used CBT in my own life, I did not even realize that it was what I was doing. Several years ago I simply knew that there was a habit I wanted to change, and this impossible habit led to my first exposure to CBT.


The Impossible Habit

joel1If you had asked me five years ago if it were possible for me to ever enjoy running, I would have said “absolutely not.” I was first inspired by Joel Runyon, who wrote a guest blog post here several years ago about “Becoming a Runner (Even if you Hate Running).” Now I run several miles almost every day. Reflecting on what led to the change, it was a series of habits developed by using some the principles in Charles Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit. It was not until I started reading about CBT that Joel and Charles were using a lot of the same basic terms.

Duhigg suggests removing all barriers to creating a good habit: placing the running shoes next to your bed, for example, so that you can easily lace them up first thing in the morning. These techniques get rid of the practical obstacles to developing a new habit, but the actual habit formation comes about from something much more basic. It’s one thing to force yourself to run every day, but to be a runner implies something much more.

Popular belief holds that it takes roughly a month to develop a new habit. During this time, as long as you practice every day, you’re exposing yourself to something that was daunting before. If you think of your obstacles (like hating running or studying every day) as fears instead, it turns out this “30 days to a habit” idea is just a form of exposure therapy.

The Science of Tweaking your Brain

I like to think of CBT as the science of tweaking your brain… using just the tools of your mind. Where a sleeping pill might send you to bed, studies have shown that CBT is just as effective for treating most forms of insomnia.

Curiously, the two treatments (CBT vs. drugs) have been shown to work differently. One study found that drugs (Paxil) acted primarily on the prefrontal cortex (the “executive” part of the brain) while CBT worked on the hippocampus (the “memory” part of the brain). It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from such studies, but it seems fair to say that CBT operates at a lower level. Drugs suppress the conscious mind. CBT appears to change how we interact with out memories.

This means that in order to apply CBT, you need to dig pretty deep into your mind. We need to get past the conscious level and actually catch/change core beliefs, which is exactly what the tools are meant to accomplish.

Noticing: Paperwork and Mindfulness

The first thing any CBT (or CBT-based) approach will call on you to do is to notice triggers.

Classically, this has been done with something called a Daily Thought Record (DTR). These are very similar to journals (which is one of the reasons I recommend journaling as a motivation technique). If you want more structure, there are many different worksheets and resources available for free over at Psychology.Tools. CBT therapists will often prescribe these recording techniques in order to help you discover what is causing the unwanted behavior (in our case, being unmotivated).




There are other techniques, though. Living in San Francisco, I’m used to hearing people talk about a “practice of mindfulness and meditation.” It was a surprise to hear such words used so freely in the Great Courses lectures though.

Many of the so-called “third wave” CBT derivatives use mindfulness techniques instead of the classical “paperwork” approach. It makes sense, really: once you strip away everything else, “mindfulness” is just the mental practice of noticing your thoughts. If you already have a mindfulness practice, or are interested in starting one, you can apply it to this step of CBT to great effect.

Once you’ve noticed when you become unmotivated, the next step is to analyze.

Analyzing: Fatigue or Laziness?

Once you’ve noticed a lack of motivation, it’s time to examine the cause.

There is a difference between fatigue (the body being pushed past it’s endurance) and laziness (mentally choosing not to do something). If you’re tired or hungry, you’re fatigued. The cure is, obviously, to sleep or eat. If you notice that often you’re simply fatigued, then the best course of action is to focus on healthy habits. Sometimes it can be hard to diagnose and treat physical fatigue; I cover the topic extensively in the “7 Habits” ebook included when you sign up to the mailing list:

CBT can’t put food in your stomach or make up for lost sleep after the fact, but what it can help with is the mental blocks to motivation. Once you’re sure that you’re not suffering from physical (fatigue) symptoms, it’s time to start applying CBT to tweak your motivation.

Acting: Turning Hate into Love

The example of running is a useful one because people tend to have such strong reactions to it. Most people are either addicted to running or hate it. Strong emotional ties like this can actually be useful, because they can be redirected.

The trick to using CBT for motivation is to not treat the topic of “motivation” itself. We need to treat the obstacles to motivation. We humans are naturally very active creatures. We invent things to do, and like to keep busy as a part of our psychology. If you’re finding it hard to do something, like to study or run, it’s because something is preventing you from applying your energy to that subject (the obstacles, from the above section).

If you can remove these obstacles, the task itself will become easy or even pleasurable. The tough part is that the obstacles are mental. In the case of running, it’s the pain and difficulty of pushing your body. This is where the key insight of CBT becomes important (though it owes this realization to a long tradition of philosophers):

It’s not things which are good or bad, but our reactions to them.

In other words, some people love running. Their reaction is positive. If you hate running, you have a negative reaction. Crucially, there is nothing preventing you have a positive reaction except your habitual way of thinking. It might seem crazy to you that some people love running, but the fact that running can be loved means that you can do it too.

The goal of our actions, then, is going to be to turn negative emotions into positive ones. Positive emotions have been shown to have a halo effect, further increasing motivation and creating a virtuous cycle of positivity. Instead of “spiraling down” into negativity, we’ll “spiral up” into enjoyment.

Strategies and Experimenting

Now that we know the triggers (what cause the lack of motivation) and our goals (to remove the blockers to action), it’s time to get to the therapy part of CBT.

There are a number of different strategies that can be used when you catch yourself feeling unmotivated Here are just some of the techniques which you can use:

  • Externalize (“help a friend“): detach yourself from the situation, describing it as if it were happening to a friend and you were giving her advice. You’ll probably find that you can be honest with your “friend” in a way you cannot be with yourself, and this exercise can make everything much clearer.
  • Scripts (“plan for success“): prepare yourself for the next time you catch the trigger. Next time you find yourself turning on the TV instead of studying, how will you react? Script out your exact actions. When you have a plan to act on and visualize executing that plan, you remove much of the psychological barrier.
  • Question (“challenge beliefs“): introspect and ask yourself the hard question: is this helping me or hurting me? This strategy is the toughest, but also gets to the root of the problem. You need to be honest with yourself and consider where the motivation-blockers are stemming from. Perhaps you’re afraid of the results, or think that you don’t deserve success. The sorts of limiting beliefs that can prevent motivation are insidious like that.

Of course, these are just a few of the many techniques which psychologists have developed. I’d like to stress that I’m not a trained CBT practitioner, but if you spend time with one he will help you develop the most effective plan for you.

Controversy and Caveats

Some research has begun to demonstrate a reduced effectiveness of CBT in recent years. Some have speculated that this is due to an increased awareness, revealing that (some of) the effective may be due to a sort of group placebo effect. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a generally effective technique.

I’ve alluded to derivative forms of CBT, known as third-wave techniques. These techniques bear many similarities to CBT, and though they may tweak the approach they are based on the same principles.

Again, if you’re interested in pursuing using CBT (or derivative techniques) to the greatest effect, I highly recommend the Great Courses series on the subject and that you also speak with a CBT practitioner.


CBT is a powerful and effective technique for tweaking your mind. Using it to improve motivation to learn is not much different than using it for insomnia, depression, anger, or any of the other common applications. It takes a lot of time and effort to make it work, but if you’re looking to make a major change then it might be the right tool for you.

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