In examining my actions and those of others, the motivations behind them seem to fall into two broad categories, that which I fear and wish to push away, and that which I want and seek to draw to me.
In the category of fear are all things that threaten me, both physically and emotionally, and my default instinctive/emotional response in these instances is either to run from the threat or attack it.
In the category of wants, the most fundamental are all the things I need to survive, including basic survival needs (food, shelter), sex (or the desire to reproduce), and socialization (the desire to be around others).
Knowing what motivates my actions is the first step to rationally controlling them, as opposed to being a meat puppet and being controlled by them. Without this awareness, I fall victim to rationalization rather than rational thought.
My body will react to its needs and threats and I will be aware of these needs through my senses and my emotions. The actions I take without thinking in response to these I will rationalize after the fact in order to justify my actions, fooling myself into thinking that I was the director when in reality I was only the actor reading the script written by my emotions.
If these processes are the default “what” of my life (and most lives it seems), the ability to interrupt the processing of emotion into action and apply rational thought beforehand instead of rationalization after, is the “how” to the start of living a virtuous life.
Recognizing but not instinctively reacting to my fears, senses and emotions allows me to apply the virtues of justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude to my decisions, instead of taking the default path of “what’s best for me in this moment”.