Tolstoy’s ‘Rules of Life’, Perfectionism and Constant Self-Improvement

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Leo Tolstoy after a life of 'rules'
Tolstoy aged 79 in 1908

Last month I wrote a post about being inspired by literature, mentioning Tolstoy’s perfectionist tendencies that are very alike my own. I’ll talk more about his perfectionism and ‘Rules of Life’ here, and in particular write about his “Journal of Daily Activities” (mentioned in Rosamund Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy).

Tolstoy began this journal at the age of eighteen, in 1847, and would set out exactly how many hours to dedicate to study, leisure and meals, leaving space to comment later on his performance.

Some days he kept to his regime and rules, but on others he did “nothing”, “almost nothing”, did things “badly”, “read Gogol” or “overslept”. Tolstoy also started compiling rules that would help him develop his willpower, which I thought I’d write about here.

Tolstoy’s ‘Rules of Life’ included:

  • Wake at five o’clock
  • Go to bed no later than ten o’clock
  • Two hours permissible for sleeping during the day
  • Eat moderately
  • Avoid sweet foods
  • Walk for an hour every day
  • Carry out everything he prescribed for himself
  • Visit a brothel only twice a month
  • Love those to whom he could be of service
  • Disregard all public opinion not based on reason
  • Love those to whom he could be of service
  • Only do one thing at a time
  • Disallow flights of imagination unless necessary

The list gradually expanded, and the following rules were added:

  • Never to show emotion
  • Stop caring about other people’s opinion of himself
  • Do good things inconspicuously
  • Keep away from women
  • Suppress lust by working hard
  • Help those less fortunate
Tolstoy was certainly quite self-absorbed at this point of his life, and it is moreover questionable whether he succeeded in following his rules. Some of those listed I don’t agree with, such as keeping away from women and hindering his (very talented) imagination. Others are amusing to say the least, such as his attempt to keep away from brothels. I’ll note here that Leo was first introduced to brothels at the age of fourteen by his brothers, and went on to have thirteen children with his wife. No matter how hard he tried, he just didn’t seem destined for successful celibacy.
Regardless, as a perfectionist I can certainly relate to the process of setting rules for himself. Do you have your own rules for life? If so, do you manage to carry them out over the long-term?

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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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