Self-help is the Marmite of the book world. It seems that readers either ravenously consume self-help books or find them utterly unhelpful. Personally, I believe that self-help books are only as effective as the person reading them allows them to be. In other words, they’re only useful if you actually implement the guidance to solve your problems. Otherwise, they’re just hollow words.

That said, as a nonfiction coach who specialises in books that make the world better, I also believe that not all self-help books are born equal. Some are inherently better than others, whether it’s their content, approach, or how they present these two key aspects. As such, Richard Templar’s 2006 bestseller The Rules of Life offers a winning combination. It’s simple, effective, and actionable.

#1. Simple

The Rules of Life has a simple key premise laid out in the subtitle: a personal code for living a better, happier, more successful life. It contains 100 straightforward rules to live a better life (106 in the updated version), which each get a few pages of airtime in a “bite-size” approach. The rules are broken into rules for: you, partnership, friends and family, social, and the world. The ideas aren’t complex, confusing, or convoluted. In fact, as Templar admits (and the book’s critics point out), nothing is truly new or revolutionary here. In fact, much of the first section is based on the philosophy of stoicism, especially rule #16 “Change what you can change, let go of the rest” in accepting what you can’t control. Many of the rules are based on good old common sense.

#2. Effective

While the rules aren’t innovative, they are intuitive and they do work. We might argue that we know we need to value time, accept ourselves, and so on—but on a daily basis, we prove ourselves incapable of actually doing these things. We lose sight of them, side-line them in favour of other things, or trick ourselves into believing we’re doing them when we’re really not. The rules might be “obvious”, but if we actually followed them more often, then it’s arguable that we wouldn’t need self-help books.

#3. Actionable

There’s little point creating a book of rules that are impossible to implement—and self-help fails when readers can’t apply it to their lives. All of these rules are practical, rather than theoretical and hands-off. Moreover, the book is easy enough to read in a just a few hours, meaning you can crack on with making your life better rather than wading through a 600-page tome. Of course, being actionable doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily implement the rules, but that’s another story.

Rules to ignore

Like any book, The Rules of Life isn’t perfect, and there are a handful of rules that I’d willingly discard. You may agree with all 100 rules or choose to discard other rules.

  • I’ve already broken rule #1 “Keep it under your hat” by telling you about this book. If you think a book will help people, it would be remiss not to share it.
  • Rule #22 goes straight in the bin. “Dress like today is important.” I say dress for comfort. Dress to express your personality. Dress the way you want to. Don’t dress to impress other people.
  • While most of rule #38 “Maintain good manners” is reasonable, not having your elbows on the dinner table and not swearing are old-fashioned and situation-dependent. If it doesn’t offend your audience, swear if you want to swear and put your elbows where you like.
  • Rule #50 “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” If that was the case, I’d be out of a job as a book coach. Of course, don’t be rude to people, but be lovingly honest rather than nice. Templar argues the case for being relentlessly positive here. But while positivity is vital, so is realism. Not everybody wants to be around relentlessly positive people; in fact, they can be just as exhausting as relentlessly negative people. It’s about balance and what’s appropriate for the situation.

In summary

The Rules of Life offers a helpful reminder of 100 simple rules to live our lives by. The rules are easy to understand, intuitive to human beings seeking betterment, and practical in implementation. However, the key to success lies in making yourself stick to rules rather than telling yourself you are when you aren’t.

It’s no good saying you know it’s important to make time for your family (rule #68) or look after yourself (rule #76) but then fail to do so, or saying you care about the planet then not bothering to recycle (rule #93). If you find 100 rules overwhelming or too difficult to action, write a list of the 10 most important rules to you for now and keep them in the notes page on your phone or the old classic, taped to the fridge. Start small, start somewhere.

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