The earth shook with cannon fire.
Debris flew around his ears, the screams of the dying suffocated by the sound of the impact.
Yet still he wrote—even on the battlefield.
Tolstoy produced 119 works of literature, at least two of them considered the best novels of all time.
He proved that being a prolific author does not contradict writing on the highest quality level, on the contrary. He wrote 7 novels, 6 novellas, 51 short stories, 6 plays and 49 non-fiction works. His novel “War and Peace“ is one of the best literary works in history, and “Anna Karenina’s“ first sentence grew famous all over the world.
Only think about all the excuses you use: laundry, errands, kids. We all have them. In comparison, a war would have been a superb one.
Still, Tolstoy composed the second book in his autobiographical trilogy while at battle during the Crimean War.
He was a human like you and me: lead a turbulent life, possessed extravagant views on society, and a stubborn, depressive, always searching, innovative character. So what made him so productive?
A glance into his works and diaries reveals that he cultivated strict and sometimes unusual habits. Habits that provide insight into how you can conquer procrastination and adapt productivity as a lifestyle.
No more excuses – be it on an actual battlefield or the battlefield we call our daily lives.
Prolific author habit #1: Love those to whom I could be of service
“All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”
Human nature is self-centered.
We stick around those people we can benefit from, who make us happy, successful or rich. But as writers, we have to act against this nature and think of ourselves as servants to our readers.
If we learn to love them, care about how they perceive our work and how it might change their life—how it might benefit them—this is where our writing finds a true value.
We are servants to our readers.
Generous givers to our community.
Not because we want to receive back, but because we want to add value to their lives and genuinely help people around us.
How is it possible? If we learn to love the readers and be of service to them.
Prolific author habit #2: Establish routines
“Wake at five o’clock, go to bed no later than ten o’clock.”
Tolstoy knew the value of getting up early and getting enough sleep.
It might have been simpler in his days to go to bed at 10 pm, without the TV or the internet. But imagine 5 in the morning during the Russian winter:
The house is freezing cold until you get the fire running. It’s pitch dark and the sun won’t come up for the next hours. The only light source: a candle or an oil lamp.
It was not a piece of cake for Tolstoy either. But there is something magical about the early morning hours, something beautiful to getting words down on the blank page while the world still sleeps.
Consider that Tolstoy slept for at least 7 hours. It’s important that your body is recharged to have the early morning energy, which is at least 7-9 hours of sleep.
People who sacrifice health for success are short-sighted, unable to recognize that bad habits will demand a payoff. Instead, strive to introduce healthy habits into your lifestyle that will ensure a long and productive life.
Prolific author habit #3: Pay attention to food
“Eat moderately, avoid sweet foods.”
Even without the danger of ice-cream, cakes and sweets accessible on every corner, Tolstoy warned about the danger of too much sugar.
The quick sugar rush blurs our mind and causes tiredness, thus stealing the creative energy we need to get our writing done.
There is no such thing as „bad“ food, but there is balance, and balance is crucial when it comes to nutrition.
A PLoS One study found that for every extra 150 calories from sugar available per person each day, diabetes prevalence rises by 1.1%. Moreover, science shows it takes just 30 minutes or less to go from a sugar rush to a full-on sugar crash, which means that we get more tired than energized thanks to sugar consumption.
A study published in Public Health Journal followed nearly 9,000 people to study the link between depression and eating sugary sweets and fast food. After six years, those who ate the most junk faced a nearly 40% greater risk of developing depression, compared to those who shunned junk food the most.
What I also love is the first part of this advice: Eating moderately means listening to your body. Many have lost the connection to their bodies due to binge eating and endless supplies of cravings.
Try to listen again.
You don’t need a fancy diet if you take this simple but highly effective advice seriously, and stop eating when your body tells you that it’s full.
Prolific author habit #4: Work out physically
“Walk for an hour every day.”
Tolstoy’s quote above incorporates both physical workout as well as daily routine.
What can regular workout do for you?
It can clear your mind, relieve stress, give your unconscious time to ponder on ideas, and keep you healthy for many years of writing to come. Daily movement is especially important for us writers as we spend hours behind our stationary desks.
Prolific author habit #5: Focus
“Only do one thing at a time.”
This principle of focus has been rediscovered after media distraction took over our daily lives. The smartphone is to blame.
But interestingly, Tolstoy stressed it during the 19th century. Daily distractions have prevented writers from getting things done for centuries.
In our time, it’s harder to focus than ever. In his book “The ONE Thing” Gary Keller argues that “Multitasking doesn’t save time — it wastes time.” and suggest instead: “You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”
Your mind can be trained to focus , and the more you practice doing one thing only, the better you will get.
When writing – focus on your writing only. Eliminate internet connection and every possible distraction and get „in the zone“.
Prolific author habit #6: Be bold and brave
„Stop caring about other people’s opinion of yourself.“
A teacher once told me that if you try to please everybody, your art will become meaningless.
Tolstoy was an artist who polarized. He evoked both great admiration and outrageous criticism.
And while it’s our task to provide value to our readers, we should not be afraid of judgment. People judge all the time, and everybody has their own opinion on everything.
Don’t let this intimidate you.
Instead, choose to filter criticism to make it work for you.
Prolific author habit #7: Write daily
“I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” – This is one of the few diary entries Tolstoy made during the mid-1860s when he was deep into the writing of War and Peace.
War and Peace is an epic of 587,287 words. This is ten times longer than your NaNoWriMo novel.
After Tolstoy spent three years rewriting most of this book, he set out to write the second masterpiece, Anna Karenina, which was published along with some additional novels.
He indeed wrote daily ‘without fail’, and this is the only way to become a truly prolific author.
It’s about keeping the habit.
Start by setting yourself a daily word count goal, no matter how small; Stephen King writes 2000 words every day – even on his birthday.
You can start with 500 – as long as you keep writing without fail.
Prolific author habit #8: 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 every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.”
Goals are about direction.
I love how Tolstoy insists on breaking down the big picture from top to bottom:
You first need to know where your whole life is going, what kind of life you want. Most creatives fail here, they are scattered between choices they refuse to make because they are infected by the omnipresent virus of FOMO (fear of missing out). Decisions are as much about what you choose as about what you don’t.
You cannot have everything at once – but you can have the life you want.
Then, break down your goals into actionable steps. What actions can you do this year, this month, this week and today that will bring you closer to the life you want? Our daily – ever hourly – life makes the big picture, so be intentional about your time.
In the last part, Tolstoy mentions priorities. He uses the apt word ‘sacrifice’, meaning that some tasks have to suffer due to others.
You cannot do all things at once, but don’t let your life be dictated by ‘lesser’ goals. Prioritize ‘the greater’, doing the things that will get your life to where you want it to be.
Prolific author habit #9: Be patient
“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
For how long do you want to be an author? – I’m guessing for a lifetime.
Writing is not a short-term goal. It’s a lifestyle. So don’t be discouraged if success does not set in straight away. With the ingredients of time and patience, you will eventually get what you desire.
Those who lose are always those who quit. Those who win are those who choose to persist, no matter how hard the task or how long it takes.
Prolific author habit #10: “If you want to be happy, be.”
“If you want to be happy, be.”
I love this advice.
Simple, yet so true.
True happiness will never come from the outside. Take a look at celebrities: Many have the money to buy everything they ever wanted, but still end up in drug addiction or even suicide. Happiness is not dependent on your level of success nor the amount of money on your bank account.
Happiness is not to possess everything but want for nothing.
You don’t have to wait until tomorrow to be happy – don’t have to wait until you wrote a bestseller or earned your first million. If you really want to be happy – just be.
This happiness will energize you to write more and become a prolific author, not vice versa. Learn to love the process and every single step of it.
Just be happy. Period.
Prolific author habit #11: Use common sense
“Even in the valley of the shadow of death, two and two do not make six.”
Creatives tend to get very emotional in the face of trouble, doubt or failure.
When those feelings threaten to take over, common sense is a great adversary.
Be realistic. Get a look at the numbers. Master them, don’t fear them.
Get to know marketing strategies, know your way around legal matters, learn the technicalities. If the success you expected does not set in, don’t run off whining, but get a hard look at the facts and the numbers, analyze them and come up with a different strategy.
Prolific author habit #12: Help those less fortunate
“Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”
For the last advice, let’s take a look at the big picture: Why are you writing? Why are you putting yourself through hours and hours of agony, bleeding upon the page?
Money? Fame? Freedom?
Let’s shift the focus now:
On something outside of you – your friends, your children, the community you want to impact, the change you want to usher in society.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book once that changed the worldview of a nation. In 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” altered the way Americans regarded slavery. She left a mark behind that became much bigger than her own personal wealth.
If one day, you can look upon your life and see that it has served people in any way outside yourself, you will realize that writing is more than putting words on paper. And you will be motivated to write today, hoping to be of service to the people around you.
“I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.”
― Gary Keller, The ONE Thing
Leo Tolstoy was a fascinating author with an insight into the human soul like none other. Even a hundred years after his death, his work remains famous and inspires movies and TV series all over the world.
You can write powerful stories such as these if you cultivate writing habits that advance both quality and quantity.
Those two are neatly intertwined.
The more you write, the more experience you gather, and the better you get – as long as you are willing to work on the craft and improve with every passing day.
Which habit do you want to adapt to your writing life? Leave a comment and let’s discuss how we can become influential and effective writers.