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5 Ways to Become a More Productive Thinker

By Maxwell Leadership | July 25, 2023
5 Ways to Become a More Productive Thinker

This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s personal development resource, How Successful People Think. John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost personal and professional leadership experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook for personal growth and goal achievement contains invaluable insights. You can pick up a copy here.

Between optimism and pessimism, there is a clear superior. Studies show that optimists are healthier and happier. A positive frame of mind motivates optimists to pursue their ambitions and keeps their self-esteem high. Generally, optimists are better off than their negative-minded counterparts.

But is there a better outlook altogether?

Realistic Thinking: The Productive Leader’s Best Friend

American author William Arthur Ward said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Pessimism focuses on faults and setbacks. Optimism highlights strengths and possibilities. Realism meets in the middle to assess a situation as it is. And the better we become at thinking realistically, the better we are equipped to realize our full potential – regardless of the circumstances before us. These 5 steps will help you improve your realistic thinking skills:


“I never give ’em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it is hell.” With these words, President Harry S. Truman captured the way many people react to truth. People tend to exaggerate their success and minimize their failures or deficiencies. They live according to Ruckert’s Law, believing there is nothing so small that it can’t be blown out of proportion. 

Unfortunately, many people today could be described by a quote from Winston Churchill: “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened.” More recently, television journalist Ted Koppel observed, “Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach.” In other words, the truth will set you free—but first it will make you angry! If you want to become a realistic thinker, however, you need to get comfortable dealing with the truth and face up to it.


The process of realistic thinking begins with doing your homework. You must first get the facts. Former governor, congressman, and ambassador Chester Bowles said, “When you approach a problem, strip yourself of preconceived opinions and prejudice, assemble and learn the facts of the situation, make the decision which seems to you to be the most honest, and then stick to it.” It doesn’t matter how sound your thinking is if it’s based on faulty data or assumptions. You can’t think well in the absence of facts (or in the presence of poor information).

You can also find out what others have done in similar circumstances. Remember, your thinking doesn’t necessarily have to be original; it just has to be solid. Why not learn all that you can from good thinkers who have faced similar situations in the past? Some of your best thinking has already been done by others!


There’s nothing like taking the time to really examine the pros and cons of an issue to give you a strong dose of reality. It rarely comes down to simply choosing the course of action with the greatest number of pros, because all pros and cons do not carry equal weight. But that’s not the value of the exercise, anyway. Rather, it helps you to dig into the facts, examine an issue from many angles, and really count the cost of a possible course of action.


We might spend the majority of our time avoiding the worst-case scenario, but the essence of realistic thinking is discovering, picturing, and examining it. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What if sales fall short of projections?
  • What if revenue hits rock bottom? (Not an optimist’s rock bottom, but real rock bottom!)
  • What if we don’t win the account?
  • What if the client doesn’t pay us?
  • What if we have to do the job short-handed?
  • What if our best player gets sick?
  • What if all the colleges reject my application?
  • What if the market goes belly-up?
  • What if the volunteers quit?
  • What if nobody shows up?

You get the idea. The point is that you need to think about worst-case possibilities whether you are running a business, leading a department, pastoring a church, coaching a team, or planning your personal finances. Your goal isn’t to be negative or to expect the worst, just to be ready for it in case it happens. That way, you give yourself the best chance for a positive result—no matter what.

If you picture the worst case and examine it honestly, then you really have experienced a reality check. You’re ready for anything. As you do that, take the advice of Charles Hole, who advised, “Deliberate with caution, but act with decision; and yield with graciousness or oppose with firmness.”


One of the keys to maximizing realistic thinking is aligning your resources with your objectives. Looking at pros and cons and examining worst-case scenarios will make you aware of any gaps between what you desire and what really is. Once you know what those gaps are, you can use your resources to fill them. After all, that’s what resources are for.

Here’s how to multiply your personal growth: Think smarter, not harder.

How Successful People Think is the Maxwell Leadership BOOK OF THE WEEK! If you want to transform your life, you need to transform your thinking! Get a copy of the book today and learn how!

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