Domains, Tensions, and Experiments: An Alternative to Setting Goals

Written by Mark McElroy

Identifying tensions and defining experiments works better than setting goals.

I’m done with setting goals. Instead, I’m organizing my life and work using a system of domains, tensions, and experiments.

  • Domains are broad areas of sustained interest or focus: the Big Themes, the Great Work, the Things That Matter.
  • Tensions are pinch points within those domains: dissatisfactions, gaps, or opportunities to generate change.
  • Experiments are time-limited, clearly-defined attempts to relieve a tension: interventions designed to close a gap between where I am and where I want to be.


At first, when defining domains, I pressured myself to have no more than three. Thanks to this arbitrary limit, I wasted a lot of time coming up with broad domains that ended up being too vague to be useful. It took time, but I finally got over myself enough to ask, “What domains are actually at work in your life?

In the end, there are nine:

  • Loving Clyde
  • Maintaining Health
  • Opening to Spirit
  • Growing as a Writer
  • Sustaining Relationships
  • Embracing Community
  • Cultivating Career
  • Sharing What Works
  • Shipping Creative Work

Giving myself permission to express all of these individually got me past the urge to lump “Loving Clyde,” “Sustaining Relationships,” and “Embracing Community” into a broad and less useful category (“Relating to Others”).

We all operate in different domains. What would your domains be? To find them, think about the people, relationships, processes, and work that really matter to you. Avoid the trap of trying to pick domains you think will sound impressive. Rather than be aspirational, start with the areas where you’re already investing attention, time, and energy.


Next, for each domain, I asked myself, “What, if anything, isn’t working or needs to change?” Some of tensions I identified that I’m comfortable sharing in a public forum are:

  • I’m not happy with my weight. After attaining a healthy weight, I’ve put on the “COVID 19.” As I write this, I weigh 215; I’d like to weigh 195. (Domain: Maintaining Health)
  • I miss my daily meditation practice. After months of daily practice, my meditation habit has become ragged and haphazard. I want to reclaim that routine. (Domains: Maintaining Health, Opening to Spirit)
  • Still. No. Novel. It’s time to commit to one. (Domain: Growing as a Writer)
  • I miss the energy of community. The combination of COVID-isolation and moving from a big city to a small town has me feeling cut off from many of the energies that used to inspire me. (Domain: Embracing Community)
  • I used to share more. I’ve been learning a lot about new tools and new ways of working, but I haven’t been diligent about “learning out loud” and making this information accessible to others. (Domain: Sharing What Works)

So: lots of tensions. What to do about them? (And what will you do about yours?)


Rather than set traditional goals to address these tensions (like “Lose twenty pounds in six months” or “Write a novel by December 31”), I’ve come up with experiments — focused, shorter-term actions with start dates, end dates, a clearly-defined action to take, and a clearly-articulated statement of what I hope to learn along the way. Here are a few I’m willing to share:

  • For the next six weeks, without trying to change my diet in any way, I’m going to log everything I eat in the Weight Watchers app and calculate the points. I want to learn whether or not the simple act of logging consumption will trigger greater mindfulness and help me regulate my weight without the need for artificial dietary constraints. Data points include days I complied with the plan and, of course, my weight.
  • Two weeks ago, I started producing a video series called “60 Seconds to Roam,” designed to introduce total beginners to Roam Research, a thought processor with the ability to link ideas together and resurface them in unexpected contexts. I want to see how the obligation to crank out two or three episodes per week impacts my knowledge of Roam, of desktop video production, and how to use YouTube and Twitter to connect with people who will value this kind of information. I’ll be logging the number of episodes I produce, the number of people who seem to value the series, and, of course, the things I learn along the way.
  • I knew from teaching online classes that well-run online meetings — while no substitute for face-to-face interaction — can create a sense of intimacy and community. As an experiment, I joined the Roam Book Club: a global organization whose members read a book, take notes in a shared Roam Research graph, and meet once a week to talk about the book. When the six-week obligation to the Book Club ends, I’ll reflect on the extent to which my participation gave me an experience of community.

When these experiments conclude, I’ll ask myself: What did I notice? What did I learn? To what extent did the experiment relieve the tension? Informed by this, I’ll decide whether to continue or amend the experiment … or abandon it and try something else.

What experiments could you undertake to address the tensions in your life?

Why This System?

I created this system because I’m sick of traditional (and, often, annual) goal-setting.

At work, I’m always frustrated by the annual cycle of goal-setting. Especially after a year like 2020, I think most of us understand the futility (and hubris) of pretending we know on January 1st what will matter come December 31st.

I also confess that I find most formulas for defining personal goals off-putting. I have friends who routinely set goals like “Be making a six-figure salary by November” or “Be a vice-president by the end of the year” or “Have 5,000 Twitter followers by July 31.”

Honestly? These kind of goals make me wince. Even when paired with detailed courses of action, they fail to take into account the complexity of the world we live in — and the fact that humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future. Besides: let’s say you get that title or those 5,000 Twitter followers by some arbitrary deadline. How will this change your life? What will you have learned?

I’ve also observed that people who don’t reach their arbitrary goals feel defeated. Binary goals — “I’ll do this, or I won’t!” — force us to approach experience in terms of success or failure. I think an approach that favors learning and response is more practical, more flexible, and easier to live with.

Where did This System Come From?

While I say I created this system, it is, like most things, a remix. My thinking was influenced by:

Tiago Forte. For a while, I tried to wedge my life into Tiago’s P.A.R.A. paradigm, which classifies everything as Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives. (My domains, were, in fact, inspired by his “areas.”) But in the end, I felt P.A.R.A. was more a system for organizing information than a structure I could use for transformation and growth.

Aaron Dignan. The book Brave New Work and the working relationship I’ve had with consultants from The Ready attuned me to the power of noticing tensions and conceiving experiments — what Dignan calls “radical changes attempted on a non-radical scale.” I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of focusing on shorter timeframes and redefining direction based on real-time information … so it seemed natural to adapt these principles for personal use.

Roam Research, Tracy Winchell, and Beau Haan. I had struggled for ages to align my life with the concepts of values, missions, goals, and objectives. Every structure I came up with felt forced or inauthentic.

  • Using Roam Research attuned to me better ways to think about and visualize connections between ideas and concepts at work in my life. (It also drew my attention to the fact that Brave New Work was the most highlighted, quoted, and referenced book I’ve read in the past two years!)
  • Tracy Winchell’s focus on Roaman Journals (journaling in Roam Research) informed my own daily journaling practice … which gave rise to several daily entries focused on what I need to see pattern and direction in my life … which helped me articulate the domain/tension/experiment solution.
  • Beau Haan’s work has helped me shift from thinking about connections and linkages between pages in Roam Research to focusing on connections and linkages between blocks (or paragraphs). Seeking connections on a more fine-grained level helped me think about the most effective ways to represent my domains, tensions, and experiments in Roam.

In addition to being a remix, this system is also experiment. Within the domains of Cultivating Career, Shipping Creative Work, and Growing as a Writer, I saw connected tensions around never quite achieving (or achieving very slowly) the work I position as being very important to me. I plan to use this system for the next eight weeks and see what I notice and learn along the way.

Making This Idea Your Own

  • Spend some time thinking about the domains in your own life. What matters? What do you come back to again and again? Where do you spend your time and energy?
  • What tensions exist within these domains? Where are the gaps? What have you wanted to achieve … but never quite achieved? What “stings” when you think about it? Where would a change be beneficial or pleasurable?
  • What experiment could you conduct over six to eight weeks as a way to address a tension in your life? What would you have to do? What would you hope to learn? When the experiment is over, what conditions would lead you to continue, amend, or abandon the experiment and try something else?
  • How does this approach differ from the goal-setting you do now? How might these differences help you achieve more of the things you want to achieve?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).