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Declutter Your Genealogy

Do you know how to identify genealogical clutter? Do you have systems in place to avoid creating clutter in the first place? Genealogical clutter isn't piles of physical papers. Learn how to identify and stop it!

Recently I posted on "The Lunchtime Genealogist" series about decluttering your genealogy. I found this an intriguing idea and wanted to encourage others to consider it during a short session of genealogy (their lunch break).

Aside from the obvious pile of papers, the concept of genealogical "clutter" needs more explanation, though.
Declutter your genealogy to be more productive and more efficient. Both essential for Occasional Genealogists.

I don't have all the answers about decluttering your genealogy but I think I've made a good start. My recently used genealogy files are essentially clutter-free. There is lots of clutter in other parts of my life but I've done a decent job of preventing it in my recent genealogy.

Let's jump right in with that suggestion, then.

TIP 1: Don't create clutter in the first place.

Well, duh! The reason my recently used files are clutter-free is I know what I need to do, but I rarely get to do it. I have gotten to the point where I avoid doing genealogy that will result in clutter (or that is a waste of my time---note that I see a difference in a "waste" of my time vs. non-productive genealogy that is "just for fun").

This is a two-part reason that leads to no clutter.
  • First, I know what I need to do means I have a system. 
  • Second, I don't try to keep up with information outside of my system.
I do have some strategies in place that keep track of bits of information that should really be someplace else but I'd consider that an organizing issue, not a clutter issue (it needs to go someplace else but it is not extraneous).

I know I've plunged into how-to declutter but let's STOP so you understand decluttering vs. organizing.

What is Clutter?

We'll start with something familiar. I've been reading a book about traditional clutter and it started by defining clutter.

One of the important distinctions is you can have organized clutter. You can probably picture this. Imagine a kitchen packed full of stuff. It's all in its place and can be found, but much of it is unnecessary.

In this post, I'm not going to talk about decluttering your physical genealogy files. Why? That is exactly like decluttering any other part of your home. You do need to come to the same understanding that it can be nicely filed and easily obtainable and still be clutter.

Much of decluttering your physical genealogy files is simply discarding duplicates. When it goes beyond that, it's probably about decluttering your research which is what I am going to talk about.

Decluttering vs. Organizing

So what's the difference in decluttering and organizing?

  • Decluttering is removing the clutter. 
  • Organizing is putting everything in a specific place (and should mean you know where to find it, later).

Just decluttering will not make things organized. You may have a great organizational system but clutter will make you less efficient. Clutter is the (extraneous) "stuff" and organization is what is done with the stuff (thrown in a shoe box, on a table, in files, digitized, etc.)

And here's the thing, when talking about genealogy research, you can probably stand a certain amount of clutter if you're well organized, especially if you have at least some digital files. In a traditional "clutter" situation, you're very limited by physical space.

Do You Need to Declutter if You Have Plenty of Space?

It would be possible to have enough digital space that you could have a lot of clutter, but a great organizing system, and therefore still be perfectly efficient.

HOWEVER, what I see a lot of is clutter and disorganization going hand in hand. It's a waste of your time to organize clutter. It is also a waste of your time to create clutter.

So, if you're pretty organized, and have been pretty organized, this concept of decluttering may not be that important. Focus on making sure you don't waste time by creating clutter, though.

What about everyone else?

I constantly see genealogists who seem to be drowning in digital clutter. I don't know enough about all of them to say if the clutter is related to their technology skills or their genealogy skills. It may be one, the other, both, or neither.

For those with excessive digital clutter, decluttering will also gain them additional skills. They will either learn to use technology so they don't create the clutter or they will have to improve their genealogy skills to make decisions. Maybe both.

It's a win-win!

If you're an Occasional Genealogist, you need to declutter to save yourself time.

If you're an Occasional Genealogist, you need to declutter to save yourself time.

  • Clutter is the extraneous stuff.
  • Organizing is what you do with it.
  • Your first step should be to stop creating clutter going forward.
  • It is possible to have sufficient digital "space" to overcome the inefficiency of clutter with a great organizing system---this probably isn't you, though.
  • Learning the skills to stop creating clutter is a win-win as those skills will benefit you overall.
Now let's get down to specifics.

Genealogical Clutter is Different

So what is clutter in your research? It is anything unnecessary and you can also add the caveat that it doesn't bring you joy (I know that's the thing going around related to the Konmari system---feel free to adjust it to an equivalent relevant for you).

Remember, we're not talking about physical items so address heirlooms when you work on decluttering your house.

If we're just talking about research, not physical items, you should NOT need to address the following common decluttering issues.
  • Items you feel guilty about getting rid of (I'm not sure how you'd feel guilty about information). 
  • Items you don't want to buy again but rarely use (genealogy is sort of all about keeping information you rarely use).
  • Items you got at a great price (I can't even come up with a genealogy equivalent, maybe items you worked really hard to find, only to discover they weren't for your family?).
Should you have genealogy information that falls under "feeling guilty" or "got at a great price," be ruthless, declutter it. Keep what you barely use, that's how genealogy works.

And one last time, address any physical items when decluttering your home.

There are different "rules" when decluttering genealogy information, like needing to hold onto items you rarely use. Efficiency is also more important.

Occasional Genealogists Have to Be Efficient Genealogists

If you were decluttering and then organizing a kitchen, you'd consider if you had to hunt for a knife or your soup ladle. It's inefficient if it takes too long to get it. However, you are somewhat constrained physically. Particularly with a knife, if young children could get a hold of it might outweigh how efficient its location is.

With genealogy information, you can essentially make most decisions about efficiency.
  • Can you find it again?
  • Do you remember the information (or that you've found it, if not the details)?
  • Do you remember where it is?

There are two "areas" where you need to be efficient regarding the above questions.
  • Mentally
Do you remember if you need it AND do you remember where it is?
  • Organizationally (physically or digitally)
Do you find the information when using your system, even if you don't remember it exists?

The organizational efficiency is game-changing. Essentially, if you were working with your files, with a specific project in mind, would you come across all the relevant information without having to explicitly look for it?

This post isn't about organizing so I'm not going into details of how to do this but the key is cross-referencing. That's very involved with a paper system and the reason I LOVE Evernote. But back to decluttering...

Clutter will slow you down mentally and organizationally.

Also, realize, genealogy requires we keep a lot of information. It is not for minimalists.

If you declutter your research, you will more easily be able to declutter physical files because you will know if you really need an item.

(For example, if you have a digital copy of an item, you can get rid of a physical copy, unless you'll just print it again next week, in which case you should focus on being organized---before you wipe out a forest).

In case you've forgotten, clutter is anything unnecessary.

How To Declutter Genealogy Research

So how do you declutter your research?

First, don't create clutter in the first place. That will help you going forward.

Honestly, if you declutter your physical files and get organized, it's only important to have your active research decluttered.

The catch is, will you choose not to work on something (that you want to work on) because it is cluttered? Motivating yourself is a good reason to declutter inactive files.

Decluttering your existing research will help you get started on a project again.

TIP 2: Get Rid of Duplicates

The second item with decluttering is to get rid of unnecessary "duplicates."

Since we're talking about research (i.e. information) that means you don't want to record the same thing in multiple places unless you need to. This is where I see many people drowning in clutter.

This is most obvious in an online tree with people duplicated.

If this is simply a technical issue, the researcher doesn't know how to prevent this or remedy it, that's an efficiency issue. Additional information about the duplicated person could be under either entry and that becomes a HUGE waste of time. It can also potentially prevent you from furthering your research if you miss vital information entered under the duplicate.

Consider if you have a situation like this anywhere in your research and try and find a solution.

#1 Solution: Learn

If your problem is a technology issue, I can't suggest a better solution than "learn what you're doing."

HELPFUL LINKHow to merge duplicates in an tree.
NOTE: This link was recently changed and the old URL does NOT forward to the new URL. If that happens again, let me know, and, you can click "Help" in the menu and then search for "merge duplicates."

What if this type of duplication is not a technology issue? What if the researcher (and that could be yourself, but your former-self, years ago) duplicated people or information because of lack of skill?

If this is your current problem, the solution is education (which is technically the "learn" solution, but a different kind of education).

You need to advance your research skills to determine if the information is a duplicate or not.

I would recommend spending more time learning, and less time researching, if you see this or suspect this is causing clutter. If it's not clutter, it's equally important to recognize as you might be missing important clues.

TIP 3: Review Your System

Most likely you're dealing with research done when you were less experienced. Now you can see you've duplicated information.

To declutter in this situation you need to first review your system. You need a good system for working through the research process. This is how there will be "a place for everything, and everything in its place."

Clutter in your research could be a duplicated person or date or place.

It could be a duplicated idea, too. Most likely, the idea isn't an identical copy.

You might have an idea about a specific problem in two different places. This is clutter because the two places are unnecessary. However, it could be two unique ideas. They belong in one place (a place for ideas). This does not mean they have to be in one file, field, or other "container."

You might have a single file for ideas or ideas might belong in linked fields (in your software program) for each person mentioned. The file where ideas belong or the specific type of field you use is the "one" place I am referring to, even though you may use multiple fields.

I keep ideas in Evernote and use tags (instead of notebooks) to keep the ideas organized (i.e. so I can find relevant ideas when I need them).

You could say my ideas are not in the same "note" container although they are in the same program (and I do have a genealogy notebook, but this is not equivalent to paper files which is my point about the "same place" not having to be a single container).

I know "one place" that isn't "one container" can be confusing. Just don't limit yourself, particularly don't force ideas about physical organizing onto digital systems. Digital systems are designed to minimize clutter by reusing information.

A fantastic paper organizing system almost guarantees duplication of information. This is not "clutter" unless it's extraneous (but it can be "too much" for your space or your liking).

No matter if you go paper or digital, a system is vital.

When Duplicates are OK

Duplication of information isn't as straightforward as duplication of physical items (like having an extraneous soup ladel).

You could have unique items that are the same type of information.

For example, one person's birthdate is a type of information. You might have six or seven different possibilities for the birthdate.

This is a fairly simple example to use.

Realize, your research will eventually get to the point where your "information" is an analysis of select parts of your research, relating to a specific question.

Your system should have a place for your analysis, a place for your currently accepted "solution" (the actual solution or closest estimate if you haven't finished researching), and a place for related analyses (there might be several for one research question, they should have one place they belong).

Clutter for the more complicated situation is the same as with the simpler example of dates, places, and ideas. If you have analysis, notes, or "facts" in different locations, the additional locations are clutter. Any identically duplicated items are also clutter.

(In an example with two identical birthdates from two different sources, the dates should be in the same "place" and both citations connected, whether the date is written once or twice depends on either the software you are using or the method for recording information by hand.)

The "Perfect" Clutter-free Scenario

In an ideal world, we would record everything once in a database and then just call the information from the database to see the customized output we want (for example, a pedigree chart is one output, a report is another, an online tree another).

In reality, you might have to duplicate select information. I have not found genealogy software that meets all my requirements so I duplicate information because I mainly use MS Word and MS Excel to record information.

Because of this non-database solution, I have to duplicate information to put it in an online tree, individual reports, an analysis, etc.

Most likely your system also involves similar duplication, unless you are able to do EVERYTHING in a database. Most people I know take notes somewhere besides a database, at-the-least.

The Plight of the Occasional Genealogist

Genealogical clutter is probably much more hampering for Occasional Genealogists than anyone else.

Cluttered genealogy, no matter the reason, makes it hard to get started again. It makes it hard to find what you need. If nothing else, it clutters your mind as you look through it.

Good genealogical writing is clear and concise. Your research is not done until you write up your results. It's difficult to be clear and concise if you're drowning in clutter.

Decluttering genealogy research can start with the fairly simple task of removing duplicate and unnecessary information. It then needs to move on to removing duplicate and unnecessary locations or processes for your information.

Unless you know where you should record something, you are likely to either record it multiple times, record it unnecessarily, or create an additional place by recording it in the wrong place.

Unfortunately decluttering genealogy research isn't as simple as decluttering your home.

Genealogy requires keeping information you rarely use. You probably do need to duplicate information (as in recording it in a report after you recorded it in your notes and in your research log). We are encouraged to NEVER assume we can obtain the same piece of information again (unlike tossing your extra pie plate, you can buy another if you find you really do need a second).

Luckily, organization can go a long way to minimizing the negative effects of clutter in our genealogy research.

Occasional Genealogists need to really focus on being efficient, though.

  • Get your system for working through the research process tightened up and efficient.
  • Declutter what you can.
  • Don't create new clutter.

You'll find your decluttered (and simultaneously organized) research will be better and will lead to better research going forward.

If decluttering your research seems overwhelming, start with these steps.
  1. Write down your system---be specific about where everything goes.
  2. Don't create new clutter, follow your system.
  3. Declutter one area when you want to work on it. Do small "areas" instead of trying to declutter broad topics, branches, files, or whatever large projects seem like a good idea.
You should be focusing on specific goals and tasks so focus on decluttering those, not everything related to them. Decluttering isn't the fun part. Keep it actionable so it helps you research, not being instead of research.

Do you have emotional clutter in your genealogy information? Are you using a database where you have little to no duplication of information (without cheating the research process!)? If you've got an unusual clutter-related situation, leave a comment. You can also just leave a comment related to this post, I'd love to read it.


  1. I started several separate trees for different branches of my family. Since these branches overlapped in ever increasing ways, I was creating many duplications. Some people show up in three or more trees. Add to that the duplication of individuals within specific trees and I see I have created a nightmare. I am now in the process of trying to combine these trees into one, and I hope I will live long enough to complete it! My advice to newbies: one tree is sufficient, unless you are sure you are doing it for someone who could not possibly be related to you. Even then, you may be surprised. I discovered my best friend was related to me by marriage three different ways. It would have so much easier to just incorporate her family into mine.

    1. This is such a good suggestion. I have a few "rules" I use to decide if I'll create an additional tree. For the most part I maintain a private tree. This is easier for me to make sure I'm not revealing informaton on living people AND so I feel comfortable entering in-progress information that might be wrong. So my first reason for creating an additonal tree is if I want to share information via a public tree. I then use Family Tree Maker to split off the relevant branches from my private tree and create a public tree. I rarely update the public trees but I'd use Family Tree Maker (or another software that can connect to trees) to add the new information from the working private tree. Second, I maintain ONE private tree for working on DNA matches. I enter a limited amount of information from my tree (by copying people from one tree to another---not using software which means I'm copying very few generations). This allows me to connect the DNA matches to my known lines. If I choose, I can then copy the DNA matches line to my working tree or my public DNA tree (which is an example of the first rule). That's pretty much it. I find it essential to maintain all my working DNA matches' trees in one tree or it becomes unmanageable.
      Just FYI, I use's trees because I've done this so long, this was the only option where I could attach documents quickly from an online subscription. There are now many options for this and I do find I often have to create a new tree (by uploading a GEDCOM) on other sites. This is clutter but usually necessary to fully use other sites. I don't try to keep all those trees completely updated and I prefer to just replace them with a new GEDCOM upload IF they need a major update. Rarely has that happened. All of this is possible because I know how to use the features of the trees, the features in desktop tree software, and I have personal rules to reduce duplication as much as I can. Learning how to merge, copy, duplicate, and download/upload your tree is really important if you want to use online trees or even just use features offered if you upload a tree.