6 Ways for Genealogists to Focus


This article is advice for me – just as it is for you.  Trust me – I fall into this trap more times than I can count.

Genealogy and family history research has changed so much in the last 20 to 25 years. In the “old days” one needed to demonstrate a ton of patience – for example, waiting for documents to come in the mail; planning a trip to a library or archive; visiting some place where microfilm could be researched; or waiting for letters from newly found “cousins.”

In an odd way it was easier then because one could plan their research much better. And planning could definitely be more easily included in one’s research.

But today – we have a bunch of resources at our fingertips via the Internet, forums, databases from commercial and free entities, digitized records and indexes, online newspapers – you name it. Even online courses and webinars.

Despite these riches it s incredibly easy to be distracted by the next shiny thing. I see some folks spending more time viewing webinars than researching. And checking out the latest genealogy app for their smartphone or tablet. How many times have you gone to ancestry.com or FamilySearch for example just on a whim and entered the same old search criteria for a surname that you have searched dozens of times before? Heck – it’s easy – just try it again. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?  Trying the same thing over and over again expecting a different result?  Sure there may be a new collection available that you aren’t aware of – but it is in many cases wasted effort.

The solution is focus and discipline. I admit that discipline is not my strong suit. But I can focus. How about you?

My suggestions:

  1. Develop research plans for individuals and/or collections. This is the best suggestion.
  2. Don’t be subscribed continually to online databases. Take a 6 month break from one of them.  Focus on others. if you can afford all or most of them go for it. But many can’t, yet they still stay continually subscribed.  I took a break from ancestry.com for a couple of 6 month periods and used other online resources instead, or worked on offline research. And I didn’t suffer total withdrawal.  I do the same thing with online newspaper databases – I take a few month break from time to time.
  3. Work on photos and stories for a month and ignore the BMD hunt. Those dead people will still be there and their “dates’ will not have changed.
  4. Plan a sources and citations month. As with many or most we have data in our genealogy databases without sources cited sufficiently. Spend a month just focused on cleaning some of those up.
  5. Choose another month for connecting and re-connecting with your “cousins.” Many times they disappear because they aren’t as interested as us and just won’t go into that attic or garage to pull out the documents and photos that they have. Re-connect and see if they can be hooked this time.
  6. Don’t get off track by all the automatic hints that many sites provide for us. If we have our family trees on ancestry.com or My Heritage or others we often get emails or indications that there are hints or matches for us to review. Totally cool, but often wasted time reviewing all of them (especially when the match is from a person who has copied your work!).

It is easy to be bombarded with all of these online resources that are readily available. And as we all know, there are many more records available that are not online. But if we spend all of our time flitting from one online site to another, how will we make the time to research offline?

The best analogy that I can think of is Alice down the rabbit hole. The world of online resources provides a ton of riches, yet can actually impede some of your research if you let it.

How do you focus?


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  1. I have been building my tree on Ancestry.com for at least five years now, and I am trying to understand why I should unsubscribe from it? Would someone please explain? Thanks.

  2. Your article rings very true… Twenty to 25 years ago I was one of those in the Court House, graveyard or library; but now I am constantly following leads on-line that are NOT based on hard data… I continue to ask people how they made this connection or that but end up with limited evidence for the connections cited in family trees on-line… It may have been a lot easier 20-25 years ago chasing hard data vs. now with all the on-line clues- which dead-end…

  3. I read your post–and this article could have been written about me!!! No wonder I sometimes feel so frazzled and mired in quicksand! Thank you for sharing your thoughts–I can see several ways to go—NO!!! WAIT!!! FOCUS!!! I will develop a research plan for some of my key individuals and move forward from there! Thanks again!

    1. Good luck Ann. It is so easy to get pulled in a bunch of different directions.

  4. This is me. I can get caught up reading historical newspapers all day. I like your suggestions. Thank you

  5. I began working on my genealogy in 1973. I made the rule that I wouldn’t enter anything in my records without proof, not hearsay. You know about ‘garbage in, garbage out’! Traveling back to the states of my ancestors, following their migration route, stopping in County Courthouses, Historical Societies and libraries, also purchasing historical maps showing counties in the era my family was there. I have enjoyed every minute of it, also collecting other lines of the family to help others with their quest. Don’t give up, it doesn’t have to cost you to get information. If you run into a paying site, back out and go around it. I highly recommend to plan your trips around collecting genealogy records in person. Many nice folks in these small communities across America. Good luck!

  6. Have you ever written an article about what it takes to request a paper to be digitized by Tom Tryniski for Fulton History? I wrote him but have gotten no reply, which leaves me wondering – did I leave something out? Was I supposed to do something first? Does he get so many requests it takes weeks for him to acknowledge a request was received? Did my email go to Spam, never to be seen? I Googled how to make a request but got no info. I appreciate any help you can offer. Thanks!

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