SMART Goals, HARD Goals, PACT, or OKRs: What Works?

Smart goalsGoal setting is vital in business, education, and performance environments such as sports, and it is also a key component of many coaching and counseling conversations (Clough et al., 2021; Woolfolk, 2021).

While counselors typically focus on dealing with past and present issues and difficulties, and coaches are more future oriented, both can benefit their clients by supporting them in setting short- and long-term goals that guide them toward successful outcomes (Passmore & Price, 2021; Nelson-Jones, 2014).

In this article, we take SMART goals and other goal methodologies initially designed for organizational, educational, and sports psychology and apply them to coaching and counseling.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.


SMART goals were introduced by George Doran in 1981 as a tool for defining and working toward objectives in a corporate setting. According to him, “the establishment of objectives and the development of their respective action plans are the most critical steps in a company’s management process” (Doran, 1981, p. 35).

Since then, the approach has been applied in business, sports, education, and beyond to offer a clear sense of direction and motivate individuals to achieve a meaningful purpose and important outcome (Clough et al., 2021; Woolfolk, 2021).

When used to support mental and physical health-related change, SMART goals improve self-efficacy and provide greater structure in counseling sessions while supporting close collaboration that strengthens the therapeutic alliance (Jensen et al., 2021; Tolchin et al., 2020).

How it works

Identifying the problems clients face is an essential part of counseling and coaching that must be followed up by focusing on the desired outcome (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

The SMART acronym can be used collaboratively with the client to set clear, realistic, and achievable goals (Passmore & Price, 2021; Clough et al., 2021).

  • Specific
    The goal must be laid out clearly, targeting a particular area for improvement.
  • Measurable
    Progress must be quantifiable. The client must be able to measure how far they have traveled and know what success will look like.
  • Achievable
    The goal should be challenging but not impossible. Most people progress by gently stretching themselves and pushing their boundaries.
  • Realistic
    Given the time and resources available, what is a realistic outcome for coaching or counseling?
  • Time bound
    When will the results be achieved? There must be a deadline to work toward, or motivation may falter.
SMART Goals - quick overview - DecisionSkills

Check out this SMART goal overview video for more information on setting goals.


Ultimately, setting and working toward goals is motivating and sets a direction for future work (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Developing a shared definition of problems and desired outcomes using the SMART goal process can strengthen the therapeutic alliance, or bond between mental health professionals and their clients (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

When defined early, tracking toward a SMART goal provides an opportunity for a regular focus on positive changes as they occur and is a strong predictor of a successful outcome (Passmore & Price, 2021).


While there are obvious benefits to setting SMART goals, research suggests several limitations.

Jensen et al. (2021, p. 9) found that “clients who had not adhered to their SMART goals were less likely to want to talk about their progress,” often failing to continue with their therapy or interrupting their progress.

Also, clients may vary in their preferences for working with goals. One study found that only 25% of people are motivated by them, and 25% prefer not to plan at all (Passmore & Price, 2021).

A goal may be SMART without being wise. The technique is valuable for identifying if goals are well stated but not for determining if they are a good idea (Grote, 2017).

HARD Goals

HARD GoalsHARD goals are more challenging and often set within a business environment to encourage employees to be more active and self-sufficient when planning and striving for desired outcomes (Murphy, 2017).

When Mark Murphy defined the HARD goal acronym (heartfelt, animated, required, and difficult) in his 2009 book Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to Give It Their All and They’ll Give You Even More, it was in response to his belief that individuals need challenging, gutsy goals that push them out of their comfort zone to deliver something amazing.

How it works

Murphy’s (2017) research examined the best leaders and performers in corporate settings, identifying that the following questions (when answered yes) are strong predictors of whether their goals would enable them to achieve great things.

  1. Can I vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals?
  2. Will I have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year?
  3. Are my goals absolutely necessary to help this company?
  4. Did I actively participate in creating my goals for this year?
  5. Do I have access to the formal training I will need to accomplish my goals?
  6. Will my goals for this year push me out of my comfort zone?
  7. Will my goals enrich the lives of others (e.g., customers, the community, etc.)?
  8. Are my goals aligned with the organization’s top priorities for this year?

In response to the research findings, Murphy felt that goals should be more than just words on a page; they must be vivid, bigger than ourselves, and absolutely necessary.

As a result, Murphy (2017) identified the need for far-reaching goals to be HARD:

  • Heartfelt
    What three reasons do you have for why you must achieve this goal?
  • Animated
    Where do you want your [education, career, health, etc.] to be?
  • Required
    What do you need to keep on track and achieve this goal?
  • Difficult
    What key skills do you need to deliver the goal? And how will you acquire them?

Unlike SMART goals, HARD goals may, at the outset, seem unachievable and even unrealistic. Yet they work by shaking us out of our status quo and encouraging our best performance (Murphy, 2017).

Mark Murphy on why you need to create HARD goals

Check out Mark Murphy describing how HARD goals compare with SMART goals.


The benefit of HARD goals is that they encourage clients to focus on future benefits at the cost of short-term sacrifice.

Murphy cites goal procrastination as one of the leading causes of failing to achieve greatness. HARD goals work because they give the brain a taste of how good things could be.

Challenging goals lead to better performance, demanding more attention, engaging the brain, and achieving more (Murphy, 2017).


Because of their nature, the HARD method is more suited to coaching than counseling. It drives the individual to achieve at the limits of what is possible for them. As a result, they do not guarantee success (Murphy, 2017).

However, they support developing a clear vision of where the client wishes to get to and what they are prepared to do.

Download 3 Free Goals Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques for lasting behavior change.

PACT Goals

PACT is a less well-known goal-setting technique created by Anne-Laure Le Cunff (Le Cunff, 2019). While its roots are unclear, it has been designed to support continuous assessment alongside tracking progress toward goals rather than setting them once and leaving them (Salmon-Stephens, 2021; Le Cunff, 2019).

While PACT does not appear to have been tested or assessed in either the coaching or counseling domains (it is not mentioned in the psychological literature), the continuous trial-and-error and monitoring approach may help clients who would otherwise fear goal setting because of risk of failure (Salmon-Stephens, 2021; Le Cunff, 2019).

How it works

PACT is an acronym that identifies four essential elements vital in defining evolving goals (Le Cunff, 2019; Salmon-Stephens, 2021).

  • Purposeful
    The goal should have a clear meaning or foundation. This element refers to the values that fuel passion and drive the person to achieve a desired outcome.
  • Actionable
    The goal should involve living in the now rather than overthinking the future. While planning is important, over-planning can lead to paralysis by analysis. PACT encourages experimentation.
  • Continuous
    Having too many options can prevent us from taking action. Instead of spending too much time on research, it encourages us to try, measure, and progress.
  • Trackable
    Measurement (as in SMART goals) is replaced by tracking; effort and progress are monitored, generating a sense of accomplishment. Such an approach lends itself to mental health or performance settings.


The PACT approach supports trying something new, opting for previously untried outcomes, and committing to multiple attempts. Failure is not something to be feared, but accepted as inevitable, encouraging repeated attempts to produce the desired output or behavior.

Unlike many other goal-setting methodologies, PACT focuses on output rather than outcome and is particularly suited for long-term, ongoing growth and development (Salmon-Stephens, 2021).


PACT goals may overemphasize immediate action at the cost of long-term positive change and development. The continuous nature of such goals could lead to additional client stress or even burnout, but rest and recovery are vital aspects of coaching and counseling (Salmon-Stephens, 2021).

OKRs: Objectives and Key Results

Objectives and Key ResultsAndrew Grove is generally accepted as the creator of objectives and key results (OKRs). John Doerr (2018) came to be recognized as the person who introduced them to technology giant Google in 1999.

How it works

In Measure What Matters, Doerr describes OKRs as a management methodology to ensure that effort is focused on the same vital issues across entire companies.

Objectives should be inspirational (what needs to be achieved), while key results concern outcomes (what needs to be done) and include hard numbers such as revenue, growth, profit, etc. (Doerr, 2018).

Why the secret to success is setting the right goals - John Doerr

Check out John Doerr’s TED talk to learn more.


OKRs have proven successful in many market-leading companies, including Adobe, Google, and Netflix, and they provide an exciting and vital way to craft a mission and vision. As such, they can boost staff engagement and help focus attention and resources on a company’s or an individual’s top priorities (Adobe Experience Cloud, 2022).


OKRs are less suited to counseling. Clients overcoming life obstacles are unlikely to benefit from performance measures that compare them with business and professional goals (Doerr, 2018).

However, they can play a vital role in workplace, career, and financial coaching, helping individuals focus on measurable checkpoints, even monetary ones (Passmore & Price, 2021; Doerr, 2018).

Selecting Your Ideal Goal Methodology

Early on in coaching and counseling, it is helpful to set at least working goals that can guide future energies (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

As awareness and understanding of issues and client objectives develop, along with the working relationship, goals should develop according to the following five principles (Passmore & Price, 2021):

  • Clarity
    Goals must be clear and not open to interpretation so they are obvious when achieved.
  • Challenge
    The goal should stretch the client and neither be too hard (so they cannot achieve it) nor too easy (so they fail to be motivated).
  • Commitment
    The individual must recognize the goal’s importance and value to ensure buy-in.
  • Feedback
    Regular feedback is vital to develop and sustain commitment and motivation.

Choosing between SMART, HARD, PACT, and OKR goals

The following steps will help clients and counselors choose an appropriate goal-setting methodology (Nelson-Jones, 2014; Passmore & Price, 2021; Salmon-Stephens, 2021; Murphy, 2017).

  1. Assess the client’s needs and context.
    For coaching, the focus is on professional development, so goals that are more structured and outcome oriented (e.g., SMART or HARD) may be more appropriate.

Goals such as PACT might be more suitable in counseling that allows for personal growth and emotional wellbeing.

  1. Determine the client’s readiness for challenge.
    In coaching, clients may be more receptive to challenging and ambitious goals (HARD).

Clients in counseling may require more nurturing and support, making the less pressure-filled PACT goals more appropriate.

  1. Evaluate the long-term vs. short-term focus.
    Coaching may involve both short-term and long-term objectives, allowing for a mix of SMART and HARD goals.

Counseling often deals with more profound issues that require a long-term focus, making PACT goals a potential fit.

  1. Consider the client’s preference for structure.
    Some coaching clients may prefer the precise structure of SMART goals, while others may thrive with the flexibility of PACT goals.

In counseling, the approach needs to be tailored to the client’s emotional state and personal preferences, which may align better with the gentler structure of PACT goals.

  1. Establish the level of measurement and tracking needed.
    In coaching, measurable progress (SMART, HARD, or OKR) can be important for demonstrating a return on invested time and effort.

Tracking effort and gradual improvement (PACT) in counseling may be more encouraging and less intimidating.

Selecting the suitable goal-setting methodology requires understanding the client’s situation, preferences, and the specific objectives of the coaching or counseling engagement.

It’s often beneficial to tailor the goal-setting process to the individual rather than adhering strictly to a single methodology.

17 Tools To Increase Motivation and Goal Achievement

These 17 Motivation & Goal Achievement Exercises [PDF] contain all you need to help others set meaningful goals, increase self-drive, and experience greater accomplishment and life satisfaction.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

Resources From

We have many resources available for counselors and coaches wishing to use goal setting to support clients in reaching successful outcomes.

The GROW model (Whitmore, 2009) is a powerful framework for use in coaching and counseling. Try the following free tools to focus on four key questions:

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Consulting the future self when making choices
    Making the right choices is not easy. Consulting your future self can help you better imagine the consequences of decisions and working toward goals.

    • Step one – Write out the decisions or the goals you are considering.
    • Step two – Imagine your future self, then ask yourself:
      • How will I feel when I’ve made the decision or achieved my goal?
      • Will I be grateful?
      • Will my future self enjoy this?
      • How will I benefit from this decision?
    • Step three – Make the decision or finalize the goal based on your answers.
  • Reframing avoidance goals as approach goals
    Goals that work toward (rather than avoid) desired outcomes are more motivating and involve a shift in attention.

Identify any avoidance goals you have. These will involve you avoiding certain things or activities. Now, rewrite them as approach goals by focusing on moving closer to the desired outcome.

Avoidance goal: “I want to avoid getting stressed at work.”
Approach goal: “I will practice stress-reducing techniques daily to maintain a calm and focused mindset at work.”

Avoidance goal: “I want to stop eating unhealthy food.”
Approach goal: “I will create a meal plan that includes a variety of healthy and nutritious foods to enhance my wellbeing.”

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, check out this collection of 17 validated motivation & goal achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

A Take-Home Message

Goal setting is a powerful and dynamic tool that can be used by counselors and therapists to boost client engagement and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.

While many of the approaches have been developed in business environments and are therefore linked to increased productivity and financial gain, they are also proven to support performance, wellbeing, and positive psychological and physical change.

The SMART methodology is a proven approach for setting clearly defined, realistic, and measurable goals. However, other approaches offer more flexibility and may push the limits of what individuals can achieve.

HARD goals encourage more activity and self-sufficiency, while PACT goals promote evolving, continuously monitored goals that can be helpful for those fearing setting one-off goals they may fail to achieve. And OKRs can direct attention to financial or career-related gains.

Ultimately, decisions based on the goal methodology adopted are important, but so too is involving the client in identifying and setting goals that excite and energize them. In doing so, the process can support stronger alliances between the counselor or coach and client and maintain and sustain motivation by tracking the journey toward the desired goal.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

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  • Tolchin, B., Baslet, G., Martino, S., Suzuki, J., Blumenfeld, H., Hirsch, L. J., Altalib, H., & Dworetzky, B. A. (2020). Motivational interviewing techniques to improve psychotherapy adherence and outcomes for patients with psychogenic nonepileptic seizures. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 32(2), 125–131.
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