Pages may contain affiliate links. See my disclosure page for more details.

Setting Genealogy Goals

As I write this (which is obviously well before you're reading it), there are three weekends until Christmas. Do you think it's time to start planning for the new year?
Five easy steps will help you identify and set genealogy goals for your research. If you're short on time, these steps are perfect for you. | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #researchplanning

As an Occasional Genealogist, someone that doesn't have a lot of time for their own family history research, setting genealogy goals for the new year is vital. I've created five steps just for Occasional Genealogists so you can do more genealogy next year.

  1. Previous year review
  2. Broad interest or goal identification
  3. Refining your interests/goals
  4. Correlating your previous year review with your refinements
  5. Finalizing your resolutions/goals

Deciding what you want to focus on and what kind of time you have available are a must if you want to do more genealogy. This post will cover each step and show you how easy it can be to set achievable genealogy goals or how to adjust when a goal isn't achievable.

Let's get started!

In reality, I started preparing for the new year back in October. It's kinda like decorating for Christmas after Halloween, but without any tinsel.

As a business owner and blogger (and mother to two young children---meaning I still have to make all the Christmas magic for them or with them), I think preparing in October is the only sensible option. Before Thanksgiving, things are already at a break-neck speed.

But I've given you, an Occasional Genealogist, a little more time before I whip out the "time for New Year's Resolutions" advice.

Seriously, if you haven't started thinking about it, you're about to be behind.

Enjoy Making Genealogy Resolutions

Let's slow down for a moment, just in case this pre-Christmas mention of resolutions is making you hyperventilate over one more thing to do.

New Year's Resolutions, or goals for the new year, aren't one more thing to do. They are your chance to get ahead. When we're talking about doing your genealogy (and we are), this is vital and also exciting.

So if planning for the new year seems overwhelming in this busy season, look at it as a chance to slow-down. After all, this is planning, you don't have to rush out and do anything (at least if you do it early you don't have to rush).

Now let's talk about preparing for a new year of genealogy.

Do More Genealogy or Do More Research?

Last year I wrote about making your resolutions or goals and making sure they weren't just "do more research" goals. I'm even more behind that concept this year. (Don't miss the follow-up post which included examples of my genealogy goals).

I can guarantee you one thing, no matter what your resolutions or goals are. Life will happen. That is where I want to start, and we'll make our way towards more traditional resolution making.

You Don't Have to Make Your Resolutions Today

FYI, I'm laying all of this out in one post, because that makes sense. You probably aren't going to do all this in one sitting. That's the reason I like to start early.

Some of the later steps might take you more time, or you might prefer some "quiet time" when you do them. That usually means you'll need to get started and then set aside some time for whatever aspect you want to focus on. Without starting, you usually don't know what you need (or how much time you need) to finish up your new year planning.

Once again, here are the areas you want to address, in order.
  1. Previous year review
  2. Broad interest or goal identification
  3. Refining your interests/goals
  4. Correlating your previous year review with your refinements
  5. Finalizing your resolutions/goals
I'll describe each of these steps, and hopefully, you'll find this is a really simple project to complete.

Your Year in Review

Don't let this very formal sounding step dissuade you from even starting. This is a vital step for Occasional Genealogists and also a step you can make very simple.

A full year in review is a great idea (whether you want to consider your whole year or just the genealogy you did during the year). Personally, I can't manage a full year review. I'd have to start in June to find time to complete it and still have time for the other steps. You can't review your year before it's happened.

Instead, I try to simplify by considering what I tried to accomplish (what my resolutions/goals were, including any I added later) and how things went in general. I want to identify why things went well or failed and if the reasons are going to happen again.

For business, this can be a bit more involved. For personal genealogy, I find so little time, I can pretty much think about why I didn't do more genealogy and how I would have liked things to go differently when I did do genealogy.

The most important aspect is identifying why I couldn't do research when I had free time and what "surprises" affected my calendar. By surprises, I don't just mean unexpected events. I mean anything that had an effect that was different than I expected.

If you're using The Occasional Genealogist Planner. This is where you start using the Planner. Your quarterly goals form asks for this exact information, so you don't just figure it out, you record it for easy reference throughout the year.

Identify Your Interests

These are the areas you want to set goals for. If you decide to work on your whole-life goals and resolutions for the year, "genealogy" would be an interest (and each of these steps will take longer, but you can use them for general resolution setting).

If you are just setting genealogy goals, this is where you need to think outside the "do more research" box.

I suggest coming up with a minimum of five items for this step. If you can write a list longer than your arm really quickly, that's fine, too. You just want to create at least five areas before you move on to the next step. That's why I said the broad "genealogy" would be an interest for your whole-life goals.

To give you an example of typical resolutions at this broad level, you usually see:
  • Exercise more
  • Eat healthier
  • [Spiritual or personal development like "read more" or "pray regularly"]
  • Work fewer hours/spend more time with family
  • [Financial goal like "spend less" or "earn more"]
  • Do more genealogy

That should give you the idea of how broad these are. None of the above broad goals are really actionable. How are you going to achieve any of these things? Not answering that question at this point is fine, that's the point.

So if we're talking about genealogy only, you don't need to create a research plan for the project you want to work on. You just need to know you want to work on a specific project. It can be a broad specific project (ex. your maternal line, that's better than the too broad "do more genealogy"). It can also be pretty specific, as long as you come up with it quickly.

If you're using The Occasional Genealogist Planner, there are suggested goals in the basic planner and even more ideas in the "Research Planning Add-on Pack." Those will walk you through starting at this broad interest to refining a goal for research or planning for education or organizing. You can read through some of the suggestions to help you brainstorm some broad interests if you're stuck in the "do more research" box.

With these broad interests or broad goals, just capture some ideas quickly. The next step is where you start refining them. If you are short on time (you're an Occasional Genealogist, after all) try and do these first two steps at the same time if you can. You might want to spend more time on your year in review (so maybe break that step up into more than one session) but this second step should be quick and easy.

If you seem to have one and only one genealogy goal, really try and break it into five broad parts. That will probably mean you have a research part, an education part, and an organizing part.

I know that's only three parts, but you might have several broad education goals. Maybe education won't help, maybe you need to find a research specialist. Say your one big goal is working on a German research project and you don't speak German. You probably can't learn to speak German this year (if you can, you should have more time for genealogy!).

For a project where you need to hire a specialist, you'd have:

  • a research part,
  • a research your options or find a specialist part,
  • a budgeting part (to pay for the specialist),
  • an organizing part (to keep track of your options or possible specialists AND your budget),
  • and maybe education or organizing your research (is your past research ready to go to the specialist?).
[A great place to start to find a specialist in a certain area of genealogy is the Association of Professional Genealogists' Directory. There are multiple ways to find someone to fit the different needs of the client (that's you).]

It is complicated to give a generic example, but it should be simple for you to break your single interest into five parts. I'm encouraging you to do this to avoid focusing only on doing research. You need to plan, research, report (which includes analysis), educate yourself, and organize. You might also need to budget.

Plan, research, report are all "research" related but make sure you are doing all three. If you get nothing else from this post, it should be that doing more genealogy in the new year is about doing more than just research.

Refining your interests/goals

Once you've created a quick list of at least five broad interests, start defining them better. If you begrudgingly added "education" or "organization," be realistic about what you want AND need to do and in what order.

You might want to research a particular ancestor. Do you need to learn about a specific topic, first? Do you need to gather your previous research and review it?

Don't just create a list of "busy work." Almost all of us could say "I need to file these papers." If you're an Occasional Genealogist, you need to focus on your broad goal and what you really need to do to achieve it.

Yes, you may have a pile of papers. Perhaps that should be a goal, but make it a free-standing goal (not related to a specific project) and make it easily achievable.

The reason you have a pile of papers is you are short on time. Will you ever set apart a large enough chunk of time to accomplish all your filing (it depends on the size of your pile)? If you can't do all the filing in one go (or won't give up enough time to do it in one go), make your goal filing what is related to a single project. Maybe just separate the other papers into loosely organized piles as you go.

The above two paragraphs are not contradictory. If you want to set a goal to "file all the papers," it needs to be easy to achieve. If that is not possible, make the goal "file the papers related to [a specific project you will continue after the filing is done.]" These are different refinements of an organizing goal.

If you are using The Occasional Genealogist Planner, the goal and task suggestions break down broader goals into Occasional Genealogist-sized suggestions. Once again, you can use these to help brainstorm your refinements. For straight forward research situations, the process is laid out as far as possible without me knowing your actual project.

You are done with this step when you have a list of goals or resolutions or on December 31st (if you just keep coming up with more ideas).

Correlate your year review with your refinements

Did you see how I used a "genealogy word" for this step? Correlation isn't that hard. Here, you're going to consider how your review of the past year should affect your list of goals.

Basically, it's time to toss the ideas you won't have time for.

This is why it's important to consider the order goals may need to be achieved in. Rather than be extremely general, I'm going to give a slightly more specific "generic" example.

Let's say you want to research a certain person. You've determined you need to learn a topic before starting research.

Do you have to learn the topic before doing anything? Could you review your previous research and write it up in a report first? Maybe you can even gather some possible source ideas for a few repositories you want to visit.

Now comes the correlation. If your year review revealed you only have 15-minute segments of time in January and February, but you can use vacation time (up to two weeks) in June and July, how does that affect the refinements of your goal?

If you HAVE to do the education first, can it be done in those 15-minute segments in January and February? Maybe. What if you need more in-depth education, like an online or in-person course? Can you take that any time of year? Can you get that course in June or July when you have larger amounts of time?

Even if the education doesn't have to be first, if it has to be accomplished in June or July (when you have "large" amounts of time) this can make a difference. A huge difference. If it's not available in June or July, it's not an option this year.

Can you make your goals fit in the time you have? If not, you'll have to either adjust your time (probably not an option) or adjust your goals.

This is a GREAT way to avoid failure. If there is no way your goals will fit in your available time, you will fail. That doesn't make anyone feel good. Adjust so you can succeed.

What To Do When Your Schedule and Your Goals Don't Mix

If the project you really want to work on this year just won't work with your schedule, consider adjusting your expectations.

Maybe you have a vision of how you should do research. Is this really your only option? Could you research in shorter segments of time? Are there other tasks you can do between the times you can research?

Sometimes you only have one option. Sometimes you need certain records, and it takes more time (or money) than you have.

My advice for this situation is one of two options. Plan a research trip or hire a professional.

Choosing Planning Instead of Researching

You can take an actual trip, do a stay-cation style trip, hire someone to get you copies of records, or hire someone to get copies and do the research. The point is you realize you are going to have to set aside a large amount of time and/or money. If that's not possible this year, start planning for the year after.

This year you might not be doing "more research." You might be planning a research trip, having a yard sale (or whatever you can do for some extra cash), or determining your options for hiring someone. All of these are still "doing genealogy."

The reason I recommended coming up with your broad goals first, without considering if they were reasonable, is to help you gauge your interest.

You should have had some very strong feelings of "I want to work on this" instead of "I know I can't work on this, so I'm interested in ______, instead."

You don't have to set your top interests aside if you can identify the other, non-research, areas you need to work on. Most genealogists keep sidelining a project of high-interest because they are too focused on research.

The Complete Occasional Genealogist Planner includes the add-on packs for "Skill Improvement" and "Research Planning" which can help you keep track of planning and education in addition to the research forms included with the basic Planner.

If your correlation just won't work---your time doesn't fit with your initial goals---you're going to have to focus on education or planning. Adjust your goals to achieve what needs to be done, even if it's not "more research."

Finalizing your resolutions/goals

There's not a lot for me to say about this last step. Finalize a short list of reasonable goals that you can achieve in the time you have available.

It is up to you if you want to actually schedule these goals on a calendar (that's the reason The Occasional Genealogist Planner is a planner and not a "kit" or other collection of material). At some point, you should be scheduling genealogy, but right now, you can just consider January if your schedule fluctuates a lot.

I've gone into a lot of hypothetical details about refining your goals and correlating them with your schedule. Some genealogists have very set ideas about what they want to do and how they want to do it. All those details are for them.

If you're a pretty flexible person (and especially if you'd be happy working on any number of different projects), it may take you longer to read this post than actually set realistic goals.

To recap:
  1. Review your year---you need to know what kind of time you expect to have this year (based on the reality of last year) and you also want to consider what went well or wrong. This doesn't have to be complicated.
  2. Come up with at least five broad interests or goals. Just do this quickly. That means a long list is OK. Break up your interests if you don't initially have five and make sure you include non-research goals (but they can obviously be related to accomplishing research).
  3. Refine your broad goals. How will you achieve them? When we're talking about research, we often have to get organized so we can review what we've done. We might need to learn a new topic. Don't forget these other vital parts.
  4. Correlate your refined goals with your year's review. Can you achieve your goals in the time you should realistically have? Are you setting yourself up to repeat the same bad habits you identified in the past year? Adjust your expectations or your focus (focus on the planning so you can do research next year if it won't fit this year's schedule). If you have to, go back and come up with new goals you can achieve.
  5. Define your final list of goals. There's no magic number, but I find five is a good number. You still have choices, but that's a little over two months per goal (not that you'll achieve them in equal amounts of time). You want goals you'll complete but that you'll also want to work on. If you're OK tossing out goals as you go (especially to give yourself more options), define more goals.

Be realistic, be happy, and be excited to start working on your genealogy goals!

Want to approach goal setting in a different way or need more examples of how to get specific and achievable goals? Check out Amy Johnson Crow, CG's post on SMART Genealogy Goals.

Five easy steps will help you identify and set genealogy goals for your research. | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #genealogygoals #researchplanning title=

Evernote for Digitizing Genealogy Records

Do you want to bring home copies of genealogy records to reference later? This is a great strategy to save time at a repository you don't get to visit often or even to bring home finding aids.

Maybe you know there's something you don't know. Referring to a copy rather than just your own notes can help you learn more later.

Maybe you just like keeping a copy in addition to your notes. It's not a bad idea.

But paper copies can be expensive and a pain to manage. Digital's the way to go, right? But how do you digitize records when the repository doesn't give you an easy way? And then how do you manage your digital copies (that is, how do you file them and find them again).

In my previous post, I talked about options for DIY digitization and the extremely important considerations you need to make before investing in a scanner. You might want to read that post first, so you understand why I recommend this method instead of different equipment. I'll wait while you do.

How do you digitize records when the repository doesn't give you a way? How do you manage your digital copies? | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #Evernote #organizing

So let's dive into my method for DIY digitization.


There are a million options for using a smartphone to take pictures of documents. I haven't tried very many of them because I LOVE the Evernote camera. This is the camera you access from within Evernote. Obviously, it just uses the actual camera on your device. It is basically software (like "scanning" apps for your phone).

Since I use Evernote anyway, this is a great option for me. I have even had great success using it on microfilm readers. This is great if you can't scan microfilm or just want a quick image of the index to use as you scroll through.

This is great if you just want a quick image of the index to use as you scroll through.

The Evernote camera is super-awesome for printed material (yes, it's so good it's worthy of that ridiculous set of adjectives). It obviously wasn't designed for historical documents, so it doesn't offer features specifically for them but will work as well or better than just your phone's camera.

With the Evernote camera, pictures of book pages and recognizable full pages are tidied up. That means it straightens them and makes them look better (white pages, black text, etc.). Usually, this means the image is black and white, like a photocopy.

Note this only works if the page is recognizable as a page. Discoloration of old documents can affect this feature. Also, it doesn't whiten pages that aren't perceived as white. Pages yellowed with age (or that were on blue paper, etc.) will just be a color photo)

In the related post about DIY digitization options, I said the difference in the images created by my camera versus a flatbed scanner was often how straight the image was. The Evernote camera gives you the flatbed-esque straight image if it recognizes a page (book or single page).

This isn't a comprehensive post about using the Evernote camera, but there are a few more advantages. It has several shooting options. They may have been updated since the last time I used all of them, so I don't want to get too specific (they may also differ by device, iOS or Android or Windows phone).

In automatic mode, the pictures will be taken automatically which can be vital if you need one hand to hold a book open. You'll be able to work much faster in that case. I've been in some situations where this was an absolute lifesaver.

An example where this saves a lot of time is if you want to capture a finding aid to use at home. These are often printed, sometimes printed off a computer and put in a three-ring binder. The automatic mode can fly through these.

I just have one problem, though.

I don't like storing my documents in Evernote. Finding aids, yes, but not copies of books, microfilm, or documents. This was a major issue for me previously. You can save a photo from an Evernote note to your computer, but if you've been working all day, it will take time to do all the clicking.

There's an App a Zap for That

I realized there is an automated solution to this! And it works when you take a picture with the Evernote camera and when you save a screenshot on your computer. I haven't tested it with other ways of saving notes from your computer, yet.

If you want a copy of any document pictures saved directly to Evernote, you'll need to use a service like Zapier. I couldn't get this to work with the free service IFTTT, but Zapier does have a free plan, and this will work on it.

Zapier is a service that connects apps so you can automate tasks, in this case, saving copies of photos in Evernote to somewhere else. I chose my backups to go to Dropbox. You can't connect this to just any folder on your computer, it has to fit within the constraints of an app.

If you are on the free Zapier plan, you will need an extra manual step of "filing" your copies, but that is a bulk step (you can move multiple images). To save the pictures from Evernote to your file folder manually (not using a Zap), you have to work on each individual picture, so it's much more time-consuming.

Once again, this post isn't step-by-step instructions.

How to Automatically Back-up Evernote Images to a File Folder

Here's the overview of what to do. You'll need a Zapier account.

  • Connect your Evernote account to Zapier.
  • Connect your destination's account (in my case, Dropbox) to Zapier.

To prevent having photos that aren't genealogy documents being saved, I created a specific Evernote notebook where I'd save my pictures. This isn't required, but I'd do it if I were you. This is about saving time and this will. So...

  • Create a special Evernote notebook where you'll store the images to be zapped.
  • Create a folder in your destination app [Dropbox] if you don't already have one.

You need your Evernote notebook and your destination file created before creating your "Zap" in Zapier.

The type of Zap you are creating is saving attachments in your specified Evernote notebook to [Dropbox].

  • Create the Zap

To create the Zap, start with Evernote and fill in the requested information. Zapier will walk you through the process after you've selected the choice of saving an Evernote attachment.

Make sure you expand the option where you specify attachments from a certain notebook. Otherwise, it'll save every attachment you create in Evernote.
Make sure you expand the option where you specify attachments from a certain notebook. Otherwise, it'll save every attachment you create in Evernote.

Once the Evernote information is filled out, complete your Zap with the information for Dropbox (or whatever service you are saving your backup copy to).

The free Zapier plan is currently limited to five Zaps which is why you will have to file your images manually. It would take a separate Zap to specify each unique set of from/to folders.

File Your Records, You Must

(that's a Yoda reference, FYI)

If you aren't connected to the Internet, you'll have to wait until you are for the Zap to run. Don't leave the filing, it'll take forever! If you're on a multi-day trip with no Internet while you research, find some free wi-fi each night and take care of your filing. McDonald's is an option most places in the U.S. if your hotel isn't.

You want to file as soon as you finish a set of images that belong together. That way you can cut and paste all of them without figuring out which ones go together (you can also double check they are all legible).

If your repository does have wi-fi, it's often worth taking a few minutes to check the legibility and file each batch. This way you have a chance to retake photos before you move on to the next source.

This is especially important if you "return" a record and won't be able to immediately get it back, such as with closed stacks where you have a wait while records are pulled for you. At the National Archives, I've had to wait weeks before they got some records refiled and they could be pulled again. That's an extreme case (and I was returning a different day, not just an hour later).

You know how important the records you photographed are versus how important it is to photograph more records, so you have to decide if it's worth filing on-site.

If you don't get to research very often, so you'll forget which folders are part of your Zap, create a workflow. This is one of the suggestions you'll find in The 2018 Occasional Genealogist Planner.

I can't take a bound object like a Planner to the Georgia Archives (one of the places I research the most often), so I'd save my workflow using the digital suggestions I made in this post about keeping a to-do list.

Automating Genealogy is Hard, Save Time When You Can

It's really hard to automate genealogy, so I'm not sure there's a good way to try and fully automate this process, even with paid apps. Using this Zap can save you a ton of time if you don't want your only copy of document pictures in Evernote.

I discovered saving a screenshot works, too (simply save it to the Evernote notebook you created). I like to save newspaper clippings to Evernote because Evernote's OCR is better than most OCR services on the newspaper sites.

You do need a paid Evernote account to use the OCR, but this could be a game changer and well worth the cost for you. If Evernote successfully OCRs the image, any name will come up in an Evernote search for that name in future, even if you didn't make a note of the name when you first saved the picture. The same applies to any typed document, really. Evernote can sometimes manage handwriting but don't count on it.

Recap: Why Use Evernote to Digitize Records

There are many options for capturing digital copies of genealogy records. I haven't tested very many of them because Evernote's camera option fits flawlessly into my workflow.
Below are the reasons I use it. If you have been using a different option, consider if it meets all these points. If so, great! If not, consider giving the Evernote camera a try (and connecting it to the Zap I described).

  • If you carry a smartphone, you probably always have it with you.
  • Smartphones are often allowed when scanners are not.
  • The Evernote camera can automatically take a picture.
  • The Evernote camera can automatically optimize pictures of typed records (books and loose papers, sometimes microfilm).
  • The Evernote camera can capture images of microfilm (better than many cameras, whether a smartphone or an actual camera).
  • Paid Evernote accounts include OCR, great for newspapers as well as books or other typed documents.
  • Connecting Evernote with a Zap can auto-backup your images, so they aren't just in Evernote.
  • The Zap works with Evernote screenshots, too.
Do you have a favorite app for capturing digital images of genealogy records? Leave a comment and tell us about it. Try and give us the exact name and which operating system so others can find it and try it out!

How do you digitize records without a scanner? How do you manage your digital copies? | The Occasional Genealogist #genealogy #familyhistory #Evernote #organizing

Digitizing Genealogy Records: DIY

Last spring I wrote a post about subscription savings, digitizing records, and Evernote. It was actually a combo post of three topics/ideas that segued from one to the other but that I didn't think each had sufficient material for a post.

I'm more verbose than I thought. Now there are three posts.

Here is the "digitizing" content which stemmed from a reader question.

DIY the digitization of genealogy material. With the right tool for you, you can create digital images for your family history research. | The Occasional Genealogist

A reader asked a question about digitizing. It relates to the suggestion I made about "gathering" material to use while taking a break from a subscription. That suggestion was gathering already digitized records. But she wanted to know about options for digitizing physical records.

In this post I'm actually going to quickly discuss some of your options and finish by telling you how I digitize digital records.

Most importantly, I want to tell you what I think is the FIRST issue to consider. Once you've considered this first issue, you may not need to consider a bunch of options. You might even have one clear choice you just need to learn more about.

Considering Digitization Options: First Step

Before even thinking about actual digitization tools, you HAVE to think about where you will use them. And I mean exactly where you will use them.


Rules for using digitization tools vary dramatically from repository to repository. You can't have one solution for every situation you might ever come across. For one thing, some places allow you to bring in nothing. I mean nothing, they provide a pencil and paper.

That's obviously the extreme. However, it is quite common for many of the specific digitization tools to be forbidden. These often touch the materials and this is why they are banned. Even if they don't touch them, misuse of the tool could touch the material and a repository doesn't want to stand over you and watch you.

Wand Scanners for Genealogy: Bad Idea?

The most common "scanner" I've seen forbidden is the wand style scanner. You run this down a document to scan it. This is probably the hardest to use, too. However, I've also been in courthouses and seen attorneys, heir searchers, title searchers, etc. using these.

A wand scanner is the most portable so if it's allowed where you research, it might be the best choice for you. If you can't use it where you research most, why take time to learn more about it?

Flip Pal: Voted Most Popular?

The tool I hear genealogists talk about the most is the Flip Pal scanner. This may also be forbidden at many repositories for similar reasons. It has some advantages because you can use it on physical objects (think of at a relative's where you are "scanning" an heirloom instead of trying to get a photo).

There are reasons so many genealogists love the Flip Pal so figure out if you could use it at enough places to make it worth the cost. If so, you can then look into if it offers the features you need.

Don't keep reinventing the wheel. Make notes for yourself as you discover what is allowed and forbidden at your usual repositories. 
This is exactly the type of information I store in Evernote (and why I have a lecture called "Evernote for Everything Else").

How I DIY Digitize Records

Personally, I use a camera to digitize records. A flatbed scanner can get a better scan but is bulky and forbidden some places.

When I used to work for clients at the National Archives digitizing documents (where you are allowed to use flatbeds), I chose not to because I could do the same work in half to a quarter of the time.

Really, a quarter of the time and easier to carry. I almost always spent more time waiting on records to arrive than digitizing them. It actually made it hard to be profitable!

The picture was just as legible as a scan, just maybe not as perfectly straight and sometimes the lighting wasn't as good. If you cared, those could be fixed in software. If a document doesn't fit entirely on the flatbed, I prefer a camera-created image.

For that work, I carried a camera stand and I had a "nicer" camera because I controlled it from my computer. The first month I photographed documents for clients, my back ached terribly from leaning over the camera so I found a better solution.

Today, I rarely get to visit repositories so I often go with the quickest solution. At NARA, I do actually still lug my camera stand and camera with me. Even a camera stand can be forbidden some places, though.

The Georgia Archives does not allow camera stands but does have plenty of microfilm readers with scanners (bring a USB drive). So, I usually just use my smartphone. (They do have a book scanner but once again, it's faster to use my own camera, I do the same at the FHL).

The Camera You'll Usually Find Me Using Today

My favorite option? I have my smartphone with me, I know how to use it, and it's lightweight. There are app options that make it great for document capture. Note that the camera on an older cell phone probably will not work. The camera quality isn't sufficient.

Most people with a cell phone have been forced to upgrade to a newer phone which will have a decent camera, though. If you need to check, you can Google using a cell phone camera for genealogy to learn about megapixel requirements and more.

Today, some smartphone cameras will do a better job than your actual digital camera. Phone manufacturers know people take pictures of documents and that a smartphone can shake more than a camera.

Smartphone cameras are now designed for both social photography and digitizing business cards, capturing paper notes, and many more "digitization" uses. These work perfectly for genealogists.

When I first started, my digital camera always did better. Today, my smartphone is easier and with one app, is a MUCH better choice than a standard digital camera (the camera stand and nicer camera is still superior but not as practical).

I have another post about using your smartphone with an app (and a little modern magic) to create great images and automatically back them up.

Scanner or digital camera, which is best for family historians wanting to digitize genealogy records? How do you decide? | The Occasional Genealogist

Why You Need a Genealogy To-do List

Deciding on the next action for a genealogy project can be exhausting. Is tiresome decision making keeping you from doing more genealogy or even doing any genealogy? | The Occasional Genealogist

Can you say decision fatigue?

That phrase was actually the note I made to myself, so I'd know what this blog post title was really supposed to be about.

Is it what you expected? It's not what I expected the first time I opened the draft post after thinking of the title.

It IS the reason you need a genealogy to-do list. But I'm pretty sure I need to clarify what kind of to-do list I'm talking about.

Genealogy Is More Than...

One "part" of this blog is the Instagram series "The Lunchtime Genealogist" where I provide a suggestion for a genealogy task you can do in 45 minutes (on your lunch break---I used to do a lot of genealogy on my lunch break when I had an office job).

There's one suggestion that is exactly where I want to start.
"Create a genealogy to-do list. Not just research to-dos!"

I've been a proponent of this concept for a long time. Genealogy is more than just research. It's more than just the research process (plan > research > report > repeat). There are education and organization to give you the two big "other" required subjects.

I only just recently realized how much decision fatigue plays a part for Occasional Genealogists, though. (You can learn more from the same book that "hit it home" for me). I heard about decision fatigue from a variety of sources. I got the concept, the more decisions you have to make, the harder it is to make the later ones and the more likely you'll make poor decisions.

Decision Fatigue: Not Just "What's For Dinner"

Who hasn't opted for a really bad, fast-food meal after a long, stressful day, full of decisions? But "comfort food" is different than genealogy, right? You actually have to eat. Naturally, you want something you perceive as quickly available. It's easy to see how you picked what you think will taste best instead of a healthier, less-satisfying option (I'm talking about you, fast-food salad).

Genealogy is different. You don't have to do genealogy. If you want to do it, it's fun, right? Surely you can rebound from decision fatigue to do a bit of research at the end of the day?


I've been so busy lately; I've realized I'm choosing not to do genealogy rather than decide what to do. Decision fatigue has reached its maximum. I already knew I sometimes choose not to do genealogy because I can't do quality research. This is different.

Just like choosing healthier food, there are "better" genealogy choices you should be making, too.

Choosing the Right Kind of Genealogy

You might make the poorer choice of just hunting around without having a plan or a place to take notes. You might make the better choice of hopping on the Internet to do a search, and you have your research log open (to record what searches you are making and the results).

There are any number of iterations of this research scenario I could list but what about the better choice of creating a research plan? What about reading a genealogy journal? Maybe the best choice would be organizing your files.

This is where we need to get back to that to-do list.

You need a genealogy to-do list that gives you the best choices but not too many choices.

A Long List of Quick Choices

Here's where it gets a bit complicated, you probably do need a list with 100 choices. It just needs to be obvious you should only pick from five of those 100 choices.


Creating a good genealogy to-do list is not easy (or at least not fast). As an Occasional Genealogist, your lack of free-time makes it harder than for someone who has frequent free-time or occasional, but significant, amounts of free-time.

Part of the reason I've been so busy lately, and decision fatigue has become my side-kick, is I've been creating The 2018 Occasional Genealogist Planner.

The Planner contains tasks and suggestions that are ready to go on your customized to-do list. Do you have to buy The Planner to create a great to-do list? No. The point of The Planner is I've done as much of the work as I can. You just take it to the next step to customize a list for you.

If you're the genealogist who is never going to buy anything, keep reading because you'll still set-up your to-do list the same way, you'll just have to do the time-consuming work of breaking down genealogy tasks into bite-size pieces.

Efficiency and Good Choices

So you need a genealogy to-do list with research tasks and non-research tasks. The purpose is to help you make good decisions and beat decision fatigue.

As an Occasional Genealogist, a good to-do list will also help you "do great genealogy, despite the interruptions."

A good to-do list contains quick actions. You don't want one of your choices to be "research ancestors." No one's going to ever check that task off, it's never-ending.

If you create an actionable to-do list, not just a long list of ideas, you are part way to keeping track of what you've done and what you need to do next. When you get interrupted, you can probably check off an item if you just finished it. You can also jot a note like "in-progress."

Next time you look at your to-do list, you'll see you should move on to the next item, or you need to finish a task.

How Much is Too Much?

So let's get a little more specific. I have no idea if 100 tasks is a good number for your to-do list. I know it wouldn't be hard to come up with 100 tasks that are small, actionable tasks.

Here's why I think a long to-do list is a good idea.

Whenever you decide you have time to do some genealogy, you don't always want to work on the same thing.

  • Sometimes you want to work on a specific project, 
  • sometimes you want to try out a new genealogy "toy" (whether software, a database, an organization system, or a gadget), 
  • sometimes you just want to do anything that feels like genealogy.

You need to have a choice that fits your desire. If you create a short list of the tasks related to one specific research project (and if it's short, it'll be for a sub-part of a larger project---so really specific tasks), you may not really want to do any of those tasks.

That won't help you do more genealogy, and it won't help you avoid decision fatigue (you may try and decide on a different option that isn't on your list, so no advantage).

What I'm suggesting is a list that is long because the tasks are broken down to be quick and actionable (FYI, quick is a relative term in genealogy). You shouldn't be deciding between all of the choices. You should have a built-in filter, what you feel like doing right then.

Filter Your List

This filter will have you choosing between the options that are realistic for your situation at that exact moment.

Very likely you either want to work on a specific project, or you want to do research online (new and unique research online). For a specific project, research may not be the best choice. Maybe you need to learn about a location involved in that project. Maybe you need to learn about using specific records for that project.

A really great task that is constantly shoved to the back-burner is doing online research to identify offline sources. Without any structure (like a to-do list), you'll rarely decide spur of the moment to research offline sources. Yet when you do, you'll probably find at least one source that is easier to obtain than you thought.

If you don't find an easy to obtain source, you might find out there's a really exciting source that exists.

I'll give you an example. Recently for a client project, I discovered the focus ancestor had military service no one knew about (or no one ever mentioned). The relevant records weren't cheap, but they were really easy to get.

I order military records almost every time I find out they exist. I didn't have to do much research to have everything I needed to order the records. If you don't order records routinely, you probably need to spend some time researching what records to get (what should exist) and how to get them (including where they are).

[Hint: finding the right person to get records for you can allow you to skip some of the time figuring out what to get. I use contractors I know are familiar with what exists so I can give them a more general request. This saves me time over having to request exact records. Finding great contractors could even be an item on your list.]

Let's recap.

  • Create a long to-do list of quick, actionable tasks. It should give you choices for whatever kind of genealogy you want to do.
  • Your list should include research process tasks, education tasks, and organizing tasks.
  • You list needs to indicate the next step whenever it's appropriate (if one step should be followed by a specific next step, this needs to be obvious).
I want to quickly talk about keeping your list. If you can't find your list, it doesn't help having one.

KEEPING a List (Create It and Find It)

I've mentioned that I've created The Occasional Genealogist Planner to help you create your to-do list. It contains quick, actionable suggestions that you can customize (for research process tasks, these are already in order, too).

The Planner is a digital file meant to be printed (by you) and assembled (by you) in the way you prefer. I've designed it for a 3-ring binder since that's the easiest way to add items in, when and where you need them.

A paper to-do list may or may not be your best option. If you don't like using technology, find it slow, or can't keep track of files, keep a paper to-do list. Just keep up with it!

I actually made The Occasional Genealogist Planner a printable planner because it can help with technology integration.

I would keep my to-do list digitally. As I mentioned, I only realized decision fatigue was really a factor with my genealogy recently, so I don't have a long to-do list created. I'm using The Planner to get myself to do more genealogy this year, too.

As for my to-do list, I haven't decided if I want to use Evernote, or Trello, or maybe a hybrid option.

I know many people today are doing genealogy on their mobile phone. It will be easier for me to create my list in the bits of free time I have, when all I have is my smartphone.

Create it... on that tiny, little screen. I hate typing on that tiny, little screen (I have no issues with reading on it which is what I mostly do).

Having a paper planner is like having a "second monitor" in a way. The Planner has general ideas. You can read these from the Planner and type them on your phone as customized tasks.

If you are working on your phone, I'm pretty sure this is easier than attempting to cut and paste. This is actually the idea behind many of the items in The Planner. Having them on paper and using them WITH your smartphone will allow you to work faster and do better genealogy.

Options like Evernote or Trello also work great with a small device like your smartphone. Basically, if you want to use your smartphone, you want an app or a (properly) mobile-optimized website. Combine this with the Planner and you should be good to go.

Hybrid Organization

So what is a hybrid option for keeping your genealogy to-do list?

You don't have to keep one long list. It needs to be organized so you can quickly choose an appropriate option. You can do this by creating multiple (organized) lists. Just make sure you can find your lists whenever you need them.

I might keep my research-process tasks in an MS Word or Google Docs file which would essentially be a fancy research plan*. I might keep my education tasks in Trello. I can have a master "list" in Evernote so I can click on a link and open the Trello board or the appropriate research document.

[*I'm calling this a "fancy" research plan because normally I wouldn't list every tiny step in a plan. Listing every step, even those I know should come next, will save me time and combat decision fatigue. This isn't necessary in a traditional plan that you work through in larger amounts of time. To benefit from a complete to-do list, I may also include items I wouldn't consider traditional parts of a plan. Hence a "fancy" plan.]

Basically, my master list would be shorter, perhaps with names of the research projects---the actual tasks would be in the linked document---organizing tasks might be individually listed as would education tasks that aren't part of a research project.

Personally, my master list would be the broad categories I might know I want to work on at a given moment. The choices would be found when I click on the link.

I will have DNA tasks as well as research tasks and on-going education tasks, so I know my list will get long quickly. I don't want to hunt through a long list just to find my list of choices. A digital list also gives you the ability to search if you just can't keep it as short as you'd like.

Ready to Customize Your To-do List?

This has been a lot of to-do list "theory." I created The Occasional Genealogist Planner to give you more specific help than I can provide in a blog post. Tasks you'd put on your to-do list are a core feature of The Planner, but not the only one. You can learn more here.

If you want to go-it-alone, you need to break down all your tasks into pieces you can accomplish in the type of free-time you usually have. The less this is, the more tasks you'll need. Make sure you don't create "cheats" by leaving out an important step when listing your tasks.

No matter what, find a place to keep your list and remember to use it. It should have tasks besides just research and besides just the non-research parts of the research process.

At the minimum, you should find these types of tasks on your list:

  • Planning
  • Research
  • Analyzing
  • Reporting
  • Education
  • Organization

If you aren't familiar with the research process, your first task should be an education task to learn more.

A genealogy To-do list should allow you to quickly decide the best option when you're ready to do some genealogy. It'll help reduce decision fatigue by presenting you with choices crafted when you were less fatigued. You should be able to reduce the time spent deciding to mere moments, so you can quickly dive-in and achieve results.

The Occasional Genealogist Planner is available now!.

Make better genealogy decisions with a simple tool, a to-do list. | The Occasional Genealogist

Make Your Genealogy Skills Go Pro

How do professional genealogists accomplish so much more? Is it simply knowledge? Do they know more than you? Is it just experience? Have they been clued-in to some secret or magic formula?

The magic theory seems to be pretty popular. In fact, it seems to be the belief held by many people that hire a professional genealogist. Because that's the reason some people will give for not wanting to pay their bill, they say "I could have done this!"

Yes, you could.

If you have the knowledge, which comes from experience.

What's the secret formula to professional genealogists' success? Can you uncover it? | The Occasional Genealogist

There's no secret professional genealogists have discovered. There is no magic formula.

There is one other super, massively important factor.


Organization is probably the thread that runs through every professional genealogy skill and separates the really successful (in terms of performance, not money) from the mediocre.

Resource Library Links

I'm updating the Resource Library. If a link you click to sign-up does not work, try this link instead.