Lists, rules and things to do

lists-001Do you make lists of things to do and then make rules for carrying them out?

Do you find writing lists easy and fun?

Does writing a list make you feel as though you’ve achieved something?

Do you come across old lists and rules that you’ve written down, and then realise that you haven’t done a single thing about them?

Are you beginning to despair, feeling that you’ll forever be a writer of lists and nothing more?

Take heart.

Below is a writer’s list of things to do. The writer’s response to what was achieved is in italics.

Take a guess as to the identity of the writer before it’s revealed.


 1)     Study the whole course of law necessary for my final exam at university.

2)      Study practical and theoretical medicine.

3)      Study languages: French, Russian and German.

4)      Study practical and theoretical agriculture.

5)      Study history, geography and statistics.

6)      Study mathematics and the grammar school course.

7)      Write a dissertation.

8)      Attain an average degree of perfection in music.

9)      Acquire some knowledge of natural sciences.

I have not managed to do these things.


New List

Write down new rules.

I wrote down a lot of rules all of a sudden and wanted to follow them all, but I was not strong enough. So now I want to set myself one rule only and to add another rule to it only when I’ve followed that one.

The first rule which I prescribe is as follows:

1)      Carry out everything you have resolved must be carried out.

I haven’t carried out this rule.



The lists above were taken from Tolstoy’s early diaries when he was a student at the prestigious Kazan University. Tolstoy was a bad student, the beginning of a lifelong contempt for authority. He behaved very badly and then castigated himself in his diaries.

 “He had a raging uncontrollable spirit leaping off in all directions.”




But he did not lack ambition. He had rigorous plans, parts of which are related above. Tolstoy was forever making lists and plans and promises to himself to be the strongest, the cleverest, the most saintly model of manhood. However, in diary entries that remind you more of Adrian Mole than a future literary giant, he discovers that writing lists is the easy part.

I find it enormously encouraging that the writer of War and Peace and Anna Karenina had similar problems getting started that I suspect most of us do. It certainly prompted me not only to write fewer lists, but to make much more effort to actually carry them out and, crucially, not make promises to myself that I don’t keep.

I hope it inspires you too.

More on Tolstoy later.