New Year’s Resolutions for 2011: Don’t make SMART goals...make HARD ones

jennifer Bjorkman | February-22-11


New Year's Resolution


It’s been almost two months since 2011 began. How are your new year's resolutions holding up? See what one of our HR experts, Craig Dowden has to say about New Year’s Resolutions and how to stick with them. The following article was published in the Ottawa Business Journal.


By: Craig Dowden, Ph.D.

The holiday season provides an opportunity to get away from work and rejuvenate, while connecting with family and friends. It is a time of celebration and reflection, as we look back on the year past and look forward to the year ahead. Creating New Year’s resolutions is a time-honoured tradition which is embraced with varied levels of enthusiasm.

Sadly, despite the overwhelming number of people who talk about losing weight, joining a gym, eating healthier, and/or quitting smoking, the success rate is limited. To obtain insight into the unfortunate answer, one only need pose the question about how many new treadmills are solely used to hang laundry and how many new gym memberships go unscanned. John Norcross, a clinical psychologist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who specializes in this area, has conducted a number of studies.  He concludes that between 40 and 46 percent of us continue to stick to our resolutions after six months with this number declining to around ten percent at the end of the year.  It appears that Oscar Wilde was right when he once humorously noted:

"A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.''

Two years ago, I wrote a column highlighting what social science has to say about New Year’s resolutions[i]. This time around, I thought I would review the types of goals we should set to maximize our chances of achieving great things in our personal and professional lives in 2011!

Although the most popular resolutions involve health or lifestyle changes, many of us also set goals for our professional lives. A well-known and widely utilized goal setting framework (the SMART system) has been promoted as the ‘best practice’ in this area for quite some time. My objective today is to challenge this assumption and share what the latest research has uncovered.




Most individuals have probably come across the SMART acronym when it comes to setting goals. Indeed, countless organizations tap into this model or utilize various derivatives thereof, especially when it comes to setting performance reviews/targets. For example, a key word search on Google for “SMART goals” brings in over 1,200,000 hits. The inherent assumption is that goals that follow this framework have the greatest chance for successful accomplishment.

For those who are unfamiliar with the model (and for those who need a primer), here is an overview of what it commonly stands for[ii]:


What may surprise you about the model is that no one is really certain where it came from and who originally developed it. Peter Drucker and Stephen Covey are two of the more famous names who have been credited with its creation. Despite these claims, there is no evidence supporting their use of the acronym, with the earliest publication reference occurring in 1981.

What is even more disturbing, especially considering its widespread popularity and usage, is that there is little or no empirical evidence to support it. Thus, a system which has been extensively adopted and promoted within the project management and personal/organizational development literatures has, essentially, no scientific foundation.

Recently, an ambitious research project was spearheaded by Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research company, which explored the utility of the SMART goal system.  Over 4000 employees from almost 400 organizations were surveyed to get their views on what kind of goal-setting techniques lead to exemplary results.


HARD, not SMART goals are the answer.


There were several remarkable findings from this research. First, the employees reported that all of this emphasis on goal-setting did not really accomplish much. Indeed, only 15% of respondents strongly agreed that their SMART goals help them achieve great things. Perhaps even more illustrative was the finding that only a mere 13% strongly agreed that their SMART goals will help them maximize their full potential in the coming year.

Another section of the survey examined the specific aspects of goal-setting within organizations that predicted whether an employee would achieve great things. Overall, the Top 8 predictors (ranked by order of importance) were as follows:

  1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers, the community, etc.).
  8. My goals are aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year. 


Based on their findings, the ‘HARD Goals’ system was born. According to Leadership IQ, HARD goals are:

  • Heartfelt — Involve emotional attachment. They are bigger than yourself and scratch an ‘existential itch.’
  • Animated — These goals are associated with a compelling and evocative movie that plays over and over in your mind where you can picture and feel the joys of goal attainment.
  • Required — There is a sense of urgency, where there exists no other alternative than to start doing rather than thinking.
  • Difficult — These goals require you to stretch outside of your comfort zone and ‘reach for the stars.’ Very little transformative change has been achieved by striving for mediocrity. It is the passion to pursue excellence and that which people feel is not possible, which leads to the greatest accomplishments.


Perhaps the most interesting finding from this research project was related to the evidence (or lack thereof) of SMART goals contributing to desired results. More specifically, the use of SMART Goals in one’s goal-setting process had no meaningful relationship with employees achieving great things. In other words, companies who did not use the SMART framework were just as likely as companies who embraced this model to have their employees positioned to accomplish great things.




Each New Year presents an opportunity for growth, as we are inspired to achieve personal and professional change. As preparation for these endeavours, many of us search fore

This article has examined arguably the most widely known system for goal-setting (SMART) and has questioned its usefulness. Interestingly, very little is known about its initial development and even more scarce is the evidence supporting its utility. Indeed, this example highlights a growing and disturbing trend of promoting non-scientific/evidence-bare models in business.

When setting your professional goals for this year, the available evidence suggests making them HARD, not SMART. Best of luck with your journey!


[i] If you are interested in this column, please feel free to email Craig Dowden, as it is no longer available on the updated OBJ site:

[ii] It should be noted that numerous other ‘replacement’ words have been used within the framework. For a more detailed list, check out the Wikipedia page, provided here.

Craig Dowden, Ph.D is the Managing Director of André Filion and Associates – Ottawa