Meet the Author
I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.
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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

Create a Genealogy To-do List

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.

Once we're done, you should know why you need a list and be ready to start one.
At the minimum, you should find these types of tasks on your list:
  • Planning
  • Research
  • Analyzing
  • Reporting
  • Education
  • Organization

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 Occasional Genealogist Planner.

UPDATE: The Planner isn't currently available but the same material, in a new format will become available in late 2021 or 2022. In the meantime, check-out The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap to help you tackle a tricky genealogy problem.

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.

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.

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

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