How to be a cognitive miser (in a good way)



At ANU we run a program called ‘Thesis Bootcamp’, adopted from the Melbourne University program of the same name invented by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone. Thesis bootcamp challenges PhD students to write as much as 20,000 words on a single weekend of intensive writing in a group setting.

We run four Thesis Bootcamps a year at ANU. Every person who comes to bootcamp writes at least 5000 words and least half of the group of 24 will write much more than that, with two or three writing the magic 20,000 word target. Our ‘bootcamp veterans’ tell us they are working better than ever, but also feel more relaxed and in charge of their writing life. The program seems to significantly reduce attrition by providing people with a community of support in those last, difficult stages.

As you can imagine, it’s insanely popular, which makes it hard to keep up with demand. I’ve noticed that people run writing retreat programs they call ‘thesis bootcamp’, but if they are not using the Connell-Freestone model I suspect the results won’t be the same because the Connell-Freestone model uses a range of psychological techniques to help people ‘unlearn’ poor writing habits and adopt new ones.

At ANU we have tweaked the Connell-Freestone model to make these ‘tricks’ even more effective. The original Connell-Freestone method that Liam taught me was quite unstructured. I’m clearly a much more uptight person because we’ve introduced more and more structure over time, while trying to preserve the original elements that makes the Connell-Freestone method work in the first place. In particular we have developed and articulated what we like to call ‘the mother-in-law strategy’.

The mother in law strategy came out of my own experience of the final stages of writing up a thesis. Although Mr Thesiswhisperer was a great help, he had a full time job. From 2001 to 2009 we were parenting a pre-school aged child while I did not one, but two research degrees. When it all got too much, I would call in tactical air support from my mother in law, Barb Mewburn. Several times I drove to her house in country Victoria, handed her Thesiswhisper Jnr (and the washing) and locked myself in the study to work.

The best thing about the mother in law treatment was I had only one job: my thesis. Barb would occasionally open the door a crack and put a meal on my desk while I wrote like a fiend for days at a time. In addition, Barb cooked meals, played with Thesiswhisperer Jnr and even washed my clothes and laid them out on my bed each morning. I can never adequately repay her for the gift of unencumbered thinking and writing time she gave me.

When an ANU student comes to bootcamp they enter a world we create for them. We serve the meals and tell them when to write and for how long. We include a series of structured activities to enhance creativity and writing flow. We even include a workout session designed specifically to protect against back and wrist pain. When they first hear about it, some ANU students think thesis bootcamp is a bit too ‘lovey dovey’ and ‘soft’. However, veterans know this is not really the case: the mother in law strategy is kind, but firm. We enforce the patented method of getting a thesis done: application of bottom to seat.

I knew the mother in law strategy worked, but until recently I didn’t really know why. Recently I have been reading about the concept of ‘miserly cognition’ and I believe the efficacy of the bootcamp environment is related to decision making, specifically, the lack of it.

Psychologists have studied how humans have evolved and less ‘expensive’ ways of thinking. In his book “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman contends that there are two types of cognitive processing: slower thinking where all options are considered, and fast thinking where a short cut or ‘heuristic’ is employed to solve a problem. Sometimes these heuristics can lead us astray (for a good discussion of this, have a read of What intelligence tests miss: the psychology of rational thought), but in many cases they can be good enough for the job so long as you are within what is called a ‘benign environment’. The ‘lovey dovey’ thesis bootcamp is just that.

These theories of cognition predict that people will tend to be ‘cognitive misers’ who avoid slow thinking if possible. Think about those days you can’t decide what to wear. You stare at the wardrobe, try on a few combinations, feeling increasingly frustrated at not being able to make a decision. This is an example of where slow thinking has replaced fast thinking. Instead of making one decision (I’ll wear the green dress’) and letting all others flow from there, every possible decision is on the table. It’s said that Steve Job’s ‘uniform’ of jeans and black turtle necks was a way to avoid this kind of decision fatigue.

Taking away choices is one of the main ways to boost willpower and achieve your long term goals. The mother in law strategy strategically reduces decision making and cognitive fatigue, leaving you free to focus on your work. Here are two suggestions to implement the mother in law strategy in the rest of your thesis life:


Look for opportunities to reduce the number of decisions during the day. This is why ‘to do’ lists work, but they have to be realistic, lightweight and easy to operationalise or they become yet another burden.

I use Omnifocus2 for my to-do list and swear by it. Omnifocus integrates with my email and calendar, allowing me to do all my planning in advance and keep information organised. There is some work involved in making sure Omni is set up to help me properly. I usually do my ‘omnification’ in the morning, lying in bed with my phone listening to the news on the radio. Maybe this is not a good example of work-life balance, but it works for me. By the time I get out of bed I know the shape of the day. Ten minutes thinking about the day saves me literally hours later – I know because I’ve measured it.

Omnifocus2 only works, however, if you commit to it utterly. “If it’s in Omni, it will happen” is my mantra, but I realise that such a draconian system might not work for everyone. A lighter weight to do list system comes from Cal Newport’s book ‘How to become a straight-A student’. His list system has two parts “Things to remember” and “Today’s schedule”. The things to remember is basically a big list of everything you have to do in your whole life, with due dates where appropriate. Each day you make a punch list from this master list, with time windows next to each task. Ideally you do this punch list with a pen and paper at the end of the day, or in the morning before you start.

A word of warning, this method will only work to reduce cognitive load if you put in specific tasks against specific times – and make them realistic. At bootcamp we schedule set writing times where people cannot do anything but write. We make these at most 2 hours long because we know writing that intensely is exhausting and people need time to recharge.


Email is the blessing and curse of academic life. I’ve written about how to organise your email better and how email creates a tyranny of tiny tasks that can make communicating with your supervisor difficult. Email is a to-do list created for you by other people what does not reflect your own priorities. I now set aside a time each Monday to do all my non-urgent correspondence after that I send all non urgent emails to Omnifocus. This has the effect of slowing down the onslaught of mail because replying quickly tends to generate more!

This is a kind of ‘cognitive bundling’ technique where like tasks are grouped together. There is cognitive effort involved in switching modes of attention – the more you can reduce this, the more effective your time will be. Bundling can be used for any kind of thesis task – reading, processing results and so on. The pomodoro technique can be used to focus attention if you are on a boring task type.

I hope my thoughts on simplifying and bundling help you be a better cognitive miser, but I’m wondering – what clever strategies you have developed? Do you wear the same thing everyday or create useful habits that reduce cognition? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.