« Communicating client retention | Main | The importance of being earnest »

Work HARD, not SMART


Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Imagine" and "Beware the Purple People Eaters."

There’s a frequently used acronym related to creating goals––SMART––which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-based. As a college professor, I taught for over 20 years a variety of concepts required to attain a desired goal or future vision. I frequently discussed the importance of creating SMART goals and how they were absolutely critical in order to accomplish this desired end.


It’s not that SMART goals are necessarily bad, but I now believe they’re flawed if what you are trying to achieve requires a behavioral transformation or major proactive change. Specific, Measurable and Time-based are all fine attributes and should automatically be built into all goals. It’s the Achievable and Realistic (or Relevant) parts I’ve been struggling with for some time now, especially after reading a piece in Forbes discussing how SMART goals can sometimes be dumb.1

In the author’s opinion, both Achievable and Realistic actually act as impediments and don’t really enable genuine movement or progress. I completely agree. Those attributes smack of phrases like “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” “Stay within your available resources,” “Be careful what you wish for,” “Play it safe,” “Don’t do anything stupid,” and “Keep your eye on the ball.”

Because of the Realistic (or Relevant) attribute, Yahoo decided to pull out of purchasing Facebook during its early years because of an overreaction to a short-term market dip2 (an article in CNN Money now predicts Facebook will at some point have a $1 trillion valuation3 while Yahoo continues to suffer); the company Digital Research passed on partnering with IBM for the creation of an operating system (after Bill Gates sent them there in the first place––the result was Microsoft creating MS-DOS, and Digital Research is now long gone);4 Kodak failed to embrace digital photography because it didn’t require film (and subsequently filed bankruptcy); and the list goes on.

A great many poor decisions have been made by people based on “unrealistic” or “non-relevant” views––views often rooted in how things currently are as compared to where they will or should be because they were unable to imagine something different.

Thankfully, John F. Kennedy didn’t listen to the pundits in 1961, who claimed going to the moon was unachievable. If NASA had used SMART goal thinking in the '60s, we would have never gone to the moon, especially within the “unrealistic” context at the time: less than nine years to complete, over $25 billion cost (about $144 billion in today’s dollars), and less than 20 percent of the necessary technology required to do it. Also, over 50 percent of the country didn’t even want to fund the project, especially since we were involved in the costly Vietnam War. But this project was absolutely necessary and relevant in order to stay ahead of the Russians.5 As part of a 1962 speech given at Rice University, Kennedy proclaimed:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 6

The result was not only one of the greatest achievements of mankind, but also the staggering development of thousands of products and industries (such as microwaves, purified water, polarized, scratch-resistant lenses, lithium batteries, kidney dialysis, NASCAR cool suits, solar panels, etc., and companies like Intel7), not to mention the inspiration of an entire generation and the creation of worldwide optimism during a difficult time in our history.

My point is this: Any goal that requires transformative thinking––thinking required to change deeply entrenched behaviors, habits and modes of thought––isn’t SMART. It’s HARD.

HARD goals require a total change in thinking––a recognition that transformation is difficult and realized through intense focus, effort and tenacity. Our greatest accomplishments in life weren’t easy. Therefore, I believe HARD goals include the following attributes:

  • HONEST: One of the biggest reasons that many goals are never achieved is because people do not honestly, deep down, believe in them. Often, they are the goals of someone else, such as a spouse, parent, physician, supervisor or the organization as a whole. They could also be the goals that have been deemed “good” by a majority of society. Regardless of origin, unless they are your goals––goals you totally believe in, desire above all else, and have built into the very core of your being––they will never be realized.
  • ACTIONABLE: These goals must be something you can begin taking immediate action toward … not someday or at some future point. If these goals require something in addition to or other things to occur first before you can begin working on them, the likelihood of success is diminished. The NASA moon program began the moment Kennedy shared the goal with Congress.
  • RADICAL: Most goals related to change frequently require some form of radical or significant shift in behavior. Typically, a minor or slight change in thinking is inadequate to achieve transformative change. For example, effective weight loss requires a sustainable, permanent change in diet from what you previously considered normal, acceptable eating. Eliminating debt requires a sustainable but substantial shift in your spending patterns, purchasing behavior and saving.
  • DETAILED: HARD goals require a plan of attack. This is where desired action is specifically detailed, time-based and measurable. This plan of attack should be incremental in nature since the power of progress is typically found and achieved through daily activity. Again, NASA had an extremely detailed plan with a series of very specific short-term objectives required to land on the moon in less than nine years.

Research shows that fewer than 2 out of 10 employees strongly agree their goals will help them achieve great things, and even less strongly agree their goals will help them maximize their full potential.8 Goals that truly lead to transformative change, the kind of change that will help you achieve great things and maximize your potential, require a HARD focus. A desired goal must be honest and true to both who you are and where you want to be; it should be immediately actionable and not something you have to wait on if you’re ready to go now; it should be radical in that to get there requires a sharp shift from the behavior that’s obviously not working now; and it should be detailed so it’s extremely clear as to the steps, resources and time required to achieve it.

A HARD goal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s extraordinarily difficult to accomplish. But it does require a higher level of intensity to achieve the desired transformation than a SMART goal. If you truly want to proactively change your behavior, you will need to change your mind––a change in thinking that directly affects your daily behavior.

©2016  Anthony D. Paustian

PaustianHeadFor more information about Dr. Anthony Paustian, provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com




1Murphy, Mark. ‘SMART’ Goals Can Sometimes Be Dumb. (Jan. 8, 2015) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the Forbes website: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2015/01/08/smart-goals-can-sometimes-be-dumb/ - 131ed902142c

2Tynan, Dan. 10 of Tech’s Biggest Missed Opportunities. (Aug. 19, 2009) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the IT Business website: http://www.itbusiness.ca/news/10-of-techs-biggest-missed-opportunities/13860

3La Monica, Paul R. Why Facebook Could One Day Be Worth $1 Trillion. (April 28, 2016) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the CNN website: http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/28/investing/facebook-trillion-dollar-market-value

4Tynan, Dan. 10 of Tech’s Biggest Missed Opportunities. (Aug. 19, 2009) Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the IT Business website: http://www.itbusiness.ca/news/10-of-techs-biggest-missed-opportunities/13860

5Wilford, John Noble (1969). We Reach the Moon: The New York Times Story of Man's Greatest Adventure. New York: Bantam Paperbacks.

6John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium. Retrieved June 4, 2016, from the NASA website: http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

7Benefits from Apollo: Giant Leaps in Technology. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the NASA website: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/80660main_ApolloFS.pdf

8Leadership IQ Study. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from the LeadershipIQ website: http://www.leadershipiq.com/blogs/leadershipiq/35353793-are-smart-goals-dumb


Great idea Tony! I like the acronym HARD Goals what a great way to look at our goals instead of the traditional SMART goals.

Love this approach Tony! Great article!

The comments to this entry are closed.

« Communicating client retention | Main | The importance of being earnest »

Technorati Bookmark: Work HARD, not SMART

This site is intended for informational and conversational purposes, not to provide specific legal, investment, or tax advice.  Articles and opinions posted here are those of the author(s). Links to and from other sites are for informational purposes and are not an endorsement by this site’s sponsor.