10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy. What Are Your Rules?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day.
This Wednesday: 10 “Rules of Life” from Tolstoy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Tolstoy. I love his fiction, and for that reason keep feeling compelled to learn more about his life, but then am driven away by his faults. I should stay away from Tolstoy biographies and just read his novels.

In any event, for happiness-project purposes, Tolstoy is particularly fascinating — both because he wrote so extensively about happiness and because he made and broke so many resolutions himself. Spectacularly.

In Henri Troyat’s biography, Tolstoy, which I haven’t been able to finish yet, because I find Tolstoy so maddening, Troyat includes an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Rules of Life” (I’m still trying to get my hands on the whole list). Tolstoy wrote these rules when he was eighteen years old:

Get up early (five o’clock)
Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)
Eat little and avoid sweets
Try to do everything by yourself
Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for evry minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater
Keep away from women
Kill desire by work
Be good, but try to let no one know it
Always live less expensively than you might
Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

Apart from the specifics of this particular list, I’m always interested to see when great minds take this approach. Taking the time to write your resolutions, or your personal manifesto, is an endeavor that can help us be more aware of the elements of a happy life. Everyone’s list of rules would be different; certainly Tolstoy’s list reflects him.

Have you written your own Rules of Life, or manifesto, or the like? Has it helped you better to live up to your own standards for yourself?

GOLD STAR to anyone who can find the complete list online. I looked everywhere, but so far, no luck. I think I’ll have to go get Volume 46 of the Tolstoy Complete Works from the New York Public Library one day soon.

* I’m a big fan of both Daniel Pink and Todd Kashdan, so I was very happy to read an interview by Todd on Dan’s blog: 3 ways to boost your curiosity and refresh your outlook.

* Have I mentioned that The Happiness Project is a #1 New York Times bestseller? You know what, I think I did. Anyway, if you want to learn more, you can…
Order your copy!
Read sample chapters!
Watch the one-minute book trailer!

  • LivewithFlair

    I did find the journal entry where Tolstoy tells us he made his list of rules, but he doesn’t list them. I wonder if they actually exist! His first rule is: “Finish entirely what you have set for yourself.” That’s what I found! I found it on google books in “The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy.” Hope this helps!

    • gretchenrubin

      He made different lists at different times of his life — even as a child.

  • Myrlin271

    I love what he said about setting goals (for the year..for every minute..etc). that is very helpful! Thank you for sharing.

  • thespartanpenguin

    I’m pretty much there with Mr Tolstoy – apart from the “keep away from women” and “kill desire by work” suggestions….

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    Hi Gretchen – I first encountered Tolstoy as a flawed but inspirational influence in Philip Yancey’s book ‘How My Faith Survived the Church’. I’ve seen you mention before that you’re interested in how people work out their faith/lives in this way and you might be interested in how Tolstoy inspired the writer despite his many flaws. The whole book is full of flawed but nonetheless life-enhancing biographies (short ones, thankfully!).

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the book recommendation — sounds like just my kind of thing.
      I’ll check it out!

  • I think many people would benefit from trying to do something by themselves, on their own, cut the cord of codependency. “Stay away from women” cracked me up.

  • Karlena

    Dear Gretchen,

    you might find the whole list of these rules in Tolstoy’s Diaries Volume 1: 1847–-1894…by R. F. Christian. The rules you are so interested in Leo Tolstoy wrote in year 1847.

    Sorry, its not exactly what you asked for, I found the list online only in russian, but I hope that at least it would safe you some time.

    Love your blog!

  • Ella

    I am always conflicted by the great people who lead such “exemplary” lives yet left behind bitter, hurt close ones for example Tolstoy, Gandhi who was estranged from his son and whose wife had such difficulty with many of his choices. Of course we must all live our lives as we must and there are two sides to every story but I still find it difficult to look at the public person and cheer them on when their private lives are not so kind and those closest to them are so hurt.

    • gretchenrubin

      I know what you mean! I’m reading Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography right
      now so have been thinking about just that.

    • I think in such examples, these are people who lead exemplary lives and become who they are by sticking to their principles, whereas most people would break such rules for the people close to them. They are who they are because of that, and people love them because of that, and those people by their nature cannot see the relationship and conundrum between the two, thus the conflict and pain.

  • wow thanks for sharing this,i luved the goal one thats whta i am trying to dp these days,..

  • Peninith1

    Gotta love those Russian titans! Dosteovsky the ‘nasty Christian’ is actually my favorite–such an outrageously excessive and defective person, so incredibly insightful, so depraved, so spiritually uplifting. There’s nothing like ’em is there????

  • The Red Angel

    I love what he said about “being good, but try not to let anyone know it”. I think that’s a big part of what integrity is..doing the right thing not because you’ll get credit for it, but because it truly is what you believe in.

    Tolstoy rocks and he always has, and this makes him rock even more than before. 🙂



    • fab62

      couldnt agree more!

  • Oh, my, no wonder their writing is so dark. Those are not happy rules! I am more inclined to think of rules like in Pirates of the Carribean. The pirate code was described as more like guidelines. The only rule I could think of was “Be kind.”

  • S N Gananath

    Really really nice! Thanks for sharing.


  • Peninith1

    And another thing . . . I am fascinated by his way of expressing that there is a hierarchy of goals and that he strives to put the more important goals first . . . that gives me something to think about !

  • Debra

    Ha! Seperating art from the artist! I’ve learned not read biographies of my favorite jazz musicians.
    I admire Tolstoy’s literature. Thanks for the list.

  • Kathy

    His rules remind me of Ben Franklin’s rules for himself – especially the rules for each day. But, I don’t think Franklin ever made a rule about avoiding women! I like the “try to do everything yourself” best, because, of course, that’s what I try to do. Sometimes with disastrous results!

  • breathejustbreathe

    I’m definitely an abstainer. Once I’ve finally decided to stop doing something , I feel like I’ve jumped to the other side of a river, and I feel very little pull to jump back. I think that’s because after the first day, my competitive spirit kicks in and I want to see how long I can keep up the abstaining. It becomes empowering. What’s hard is making that initial leap. I have been known to weep as I eat my last piece of pie before I start a dessert-free stretch.

  • Debbie

    I have “commandments” similar to what you have shared in your book and this blog. I currently have 16 and they do shift. I find that I am often too much a rule follower so having commandments that are based on how I want to feel works better for me. I will still get up at 5:45 and don’t need to have that listed. 🙂 My commandments are here: http://paradigmshakeup.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/my-life-commandments-for-now/

  • I love the rule about goals. Such a positive way to live your life — I like the idea of always having something to work toward, no matter what.

  • Very interesting (and inspiring!) post. I think I’m going to start working on a little mini manifesto on rules to a happy marriage on my newlywed blog. I’ll keep you posted. Since I just posted my guide to being a bad-ass married couple today, I think I’ll wait a little bit. LOL!

    P.S. SO adding you to my blogroll. We’re all about being “happily” married!

  • I love this post, and wrote about it on my own blog. In case you’re interested:

  • Rackerly

    I only got 40% on the test, maybe I should reevaluate whether I am as happy as I think I am.

  • “Try to do everything by yourself”?? Seems pretty anti-positive psychology, where “other people matter”…. Otherwise, pretty high in the self-regulation, which is critically important. Certainly higher than I would be aiming… 🙂

  • Churrushka
  • Churrushka

    the “Are You Happy?” project, isnpired in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin´s film “Chronique of a Summer” is taking place in UK.


  • Katie

    I found a few books that mention his rules (not in a full easy list) on Google books (so I couldn’t copy and paste them unfortunately).

    Tolstoy By A. N. Wilson pg. 53-4, 59;

    Tolstoy’s diaries vol I p 14, 31-2,38, 44, 42, 47, 61,86, 192, 271 (index)

    Hope you can find the full list. I haven’t looked into Tolstoy much but doing this little bit of research makes me much more interested in him.

  • Very thank for sharing all the information you offer here.
    There are so many people have replyed here,and i would like to take part in.

  • Dianeheath


    family and friends first
    who are my family and friends?
    music, art and literature second.
    what is art?
    debt is not allowed.
    except mortgage for a better tax bracket.
    god before all of that.
    by grace,
    god is in all of that.

    • BrassandLace

      I’m not at all religious, but I did like your last three lines even if I don’t agree with them. Best of luck.

  • Pthomas1628

    Strange this came across my email today. My quote for the week in my weekly announcement at Raymond L. Young Elementary featured a quote from Tolstoy.
    “If you want to be happy, be.” I thought it was perfect for Kindergarten all the way to 6th grade! Love your blog……..

  • Me

    Keep away from women
    Kill desire by work


  • Fnordius

    I think the most revealing part is that he wrote these rules when he was still a teenager. They definitely read like something an eighteen-year-old geek in a pre-computer society might come up with.

    My list has just one point on it:

  • Tolst

    your historical ignorance is impressive.

    you forgot ‘avoid getting stabbed by an ice-pick in mexico’. that’s how he died, anyway

    • Peter Lee

      Wasn’t it Trotsky who was killed by an ice-pick in Mexico, not Tolstoy who died at a railway station in Russia?

    • Katereads

      Always beware of accusing others of “historical ignorance”!! Especially when you prove it by being mistaken, yourself.

  • I’ve never heard about Tostoy’s Rules of Life until I read this post, Gretchen. When you mentioned that you could not find the rules I started the search myself because it was interesting for me what else he out on his life agenda.
    I did find all 42 rules in Russian and all his diaries in Russian (Russian is my native language.) Tolstoy has all his rules broken down into:
    goals for the next two years living in the village,
    development of physical will,
    development of emotional will,
    development of mental will,
    development of memory,
    development of your “active spirit” (doing something, helping others, staying productive in life),
    development of mind,
    development of the feeling of love and eliminating the feeling of pride and self-love.
    It is really a very interesting set of rules and after reading them I decided to create my own list.
    Gretchen, if you are interested in all rules just contact me and I’ll be happy to translate them for you.

    • Pstevens2

      I would be interested in the translation if it is not too much trouble.


  • Dap

    It’s okay he didn’t have much luck at keeping away from women.

  • Nmreed

    Here is some interesting info on Tolstoy.


    Tolstoy constantly compiles behavioural rulesAfter leaving university and travelling back to Yasnaya Polyana in 1847, Tolstoy wrote a set of rules which he tried to live by. They read as follows:
    1) To study the whole course of law necessary for my final examination at the university.
    2) To study practical medicine and some theoretical medicine.
    3) To study languages: French, Russian, German, English, Italian and Latin.
    4) To study agriculture, both theoretical and practical.
    5) To study history geography and geography.
    6) To study mathematics, the grammar-school course.
    7) To write a dissertation.
    8) To attain a degree of perfection in music and painting.
    9) To write down rules.
    10) To acquire some knowledge of the natural sciences.
    11) To write essays on all the subjects that I shall study (p53 Tolstoy, Wilson).

    He was still giving himself instructions in his diaries half a dozen years later: “Abandon yourself entirely to everything you undertake,” he wrote, for example, and “Overcome depression by work, not by distractions.” Having by then tasted success as a writer, he was also composing rules about how he should work. “When you criticize your work, always put yourself in the position of the most limited reader, who is looking only for entertainment in a book,” he wrote. “The most interesting books are those in which the author pretends to hide his own opinion and yet remains faithful to it.”

  • Looking forward to reading this book.. Tolstoy sounds like a very interesting character!

  • Looking forward to reading this book.. Tolstoy sounds like a very interesting character!

  • Matt

    Kill women by desire is more like it.

  • Jyothirmayee

    Very interesting post!!! My intial reaction to the list was how intense and pschylogically evolved at the age of 18….I liked his fifth on goals..I have read some of his novels and didn’t know about his personal life much…thanks

  • volpino

    I just make them up as I go. Rules are ridiculous, unless they are as simple as “don’t consciously hurt someone, or yourself”.

    Take each moment as it comes and be open to it. If you feel like an apple one mornoing, eat it. But don’t say “I must eat an apple each morning”. Where’s the joy in that?

    Hard and fast rules mire you in pre-conception, pretension and rigidity. Be. Flow. At least that’s what I discovered works for me.

    That is all 🙂

  • Seek God first.
    Obey His commandments.
    Spread His word to the world.

  • SEC232

    I’m a teacher. So I like to follow the same rules that I have in place for my students:
    Follow directions first time given.
    Keep hands, feet and other objects to yourself. (Translation- Don’t hurt others.)
    Listen carefully.
    Be kind to others.
    Do your best.

    If it works for 7 year olds, it works for me!

  • This reminds me

  • This reminds me of a meme I was tagged in years ago started by Mindapples that asked people to share their 5-A-Day: five things you do each day that keep your mind healthy (and happy!). I don’t manage to do all of these every day, but if I do, I know it’s going to be a good day, so these are some of my “rules of life” (I have 8, rather than 5).

    1. Read
    2. Journal
    3. Stretch/do yoga
    4. Meditate
    5. Take a walk
    6. Cook dinner
    7. Spend time with the hubs
    8. Play/laugh/hang out with our cat

  • I agree with most of those and in fact, that is what time I wake up and go to bed. I disagree with trying to do everything oneself. My secret to happiness would try to flow with the river of life instead of paddling against it.

  •  Love your attitude to Tolstoy. I can so relate! Also, I love his list, although it’s quite intimidating, getting down to every minute like that, or at least aspiring to. I simply aspire to making a list…. as you can read on my blog. (I mention you.)

  • TStrobaugh

    As some other have mentioned, Benjamin Franklin made a similare list:

    The 13 virtues were:


        “TEMPERANCE. Eat
    not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

        “SILENCE. Speak
    not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

        “ORDER. Let all
    your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

    Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

        “FRUGALITY. Make
    no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

        “INDUSTRY. Lose no
    time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

        “SINCERITY. Use no
    hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak

        “JUSTICE. Wrong
    none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

        “MODERATION. Avoid
    extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

    Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

    not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

        “CHASTITY. Rarely
    use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury
    of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

        “HUMILITY. Imitate
    Jesus and Socrates.”

  • Naomi

    I agree with some of these, like getting up at 5 (already do this) and going to bed at nine, but some wouldn’t work for me. If I ate little, I would end up being way too skinny, because I am almost too thin already and I eat a ton.
    My rules would be something like this, I guess:
    1 Get up early
    2 Go to bed early
    3 Do not waste time on useless habits (such as playing on my iPod)
    4 Do not eat sugary or otherwise processed foods
    5 Drink water first thing in the morning and eat breakfast early
    6 Exercise well every day, preferably outdoors so nature can be enjoyed
    7 Write every day
    9 Get schoolwork finished as early as possible
    10 Emphasize the positive things in life while trying to improve the negatives
    11 Laugh, and love life for what it is, for it is ephemeral

  • Candice

    The rules I’ve sort of landed up with, mostly out of preference are:

    Always be on time
    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (karma)
    Think unto others as you would have them think unto you
    Everyone has a story – listen to it
    Don’t judge others AT ALL
    Learn through other’s mistakes
    Be present
    Achieve your goals
    Do what you say you are going to do
    Do more than you think you have time for
    If it’s not yours, don’t touch it

  • Jeanne

    My list is pretty short. Give everyone (including myself) the benefit of the doubt. We are all doing our best, and we can all do better. A story – one day I was riding home from a meeting with my boss. Someone in front of us was driving erratically, and she was calling him everything under the sun. Giving him the BOTD, I said, “Maybe he was just given a devastating diagnosis, maybe his mother just passed away, he could be driving with tears in his eyes.” When we finally got around him my boss screamed, “He’s talking on the phone!” Undaunted, I said, “Maybe he’s talking about his diagnosis or his dead mother.”