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Genealogy Research Planning: A Recipe for the Chronically Rushed

image for how to eat an elephant with text overlay - recipe for elephant ala genealogy

How to Do Genealogy When You're Short on Time

Today I'm going to give you a recipe for Elephant ala Genealogy. If you don't get it, it's that old joke about "how do you eat an elephant?" The answer is "one bite at a time." It's the same way you plan genealogy research.

This is a bite-sized approach to doing genealogy planning, followed by research, and then the extremely important "reporting" step. This is not a recipe a professional genealogist would use for a client (it's for Occasional Genealogists) so I've adjusted the reporting step to make it easier to get started.

I've laid out this recipe for 15-minute sessions because it's likely you can squeeze that amount of time in somewhere. Research planning of this type is easier if you do it frequently.

You can also do this once a week for a longer time, just try and avoid redoing work each week because you don't remember where you left off. Figure out what you need to do so you know what to do next. That is a super valuable skill to learn so make it part of your process.

Why a Recipe?

This is a "recipe" because it is very specific. I've imagined it for a lunch break where you're not at home. Obviously, it'll be simpler if you are doing this at home. You need to have a set-up if you want to accomplish something in just 15 minutes, though.

Create Your Own Set-up

Your set-up is the way you access your notes and create new ones. For paper, this is where you keep everything (if you're not at home), whether a file folder, or binder, etc. If you're going digital, your set-up needs to be equally organized. Be able to quickly access what you need.

I described an idea I'm working on for my personal research that is a "set-up" I'll use at home. You can read that post here to see what I included. [Update: If you purchased The Occasional Genealogist Planner, it is designed to be your "set-up" as well as a place to schedule when you'll plan/research/report.]

Also, you do need to be able to do research. In 15 minutes, that will have to be online and is probably a look-up. If what you need to do is more involved, you will need to adjust so you don't miss out on any clues or repeat work because of the short sessions.

If you can fit in a research trip (of any type---local or major travel) but just need to prepare a plan to justify it, it's simple to use this recipe until the research stage, make your trip, and then come back to complete the rest of the recipe.

Doing your planning and reporting frequently, in little bits of time, and your research in a chunk is a great idea. Just don't put off the reporting!!!!

The Recipe

If you will record your results on paper, you'll need to do the prep-day work, first. If you'll be fully digital, I'm assuming you have access to the files you'll need, otherwise, prep before day one.

Prep-day (at home for paper prep):

Print any forms you need or have your papers ready. This includes forms for your...

  • plan,
  • log,
  • and notes.
You can handle the "report" later or turn your plan into a report (this is recommended so you don't have as much to rewrite, you're obviously short on time if you're using 15-minutes sessions).

If you are only using paper because you have to (for example, because you are on your lunch break at work), bring your goal home after day one and put it on your digital forms and then print them to save yourself the writing. You'll be doing "print on demand" with this latter scenario.

Day one:

Asking a Good Research Question

  • Define your goal.

This needs to be very specific, a "research question" not a broad goal. If you aren't clear on this, take an extra day (i.e. an extra 15 minutes) and read this post about asking a good research question and brainstorm some goals that meet the criteria described.
  • Write it down somewhere you can access it every time you do research.
Electronically, it can be anywhere so you can cut and paste it into different places. On paper, write it on your plan. You'll need your goal on your notes and log (cut and paste for digital, use a clear, concise summary if using paper).

Let me repeat that.
Copy your goal onto:
  • your plan
  • your notes
  • your research log

Day two:

Start Research Planning

  • Begin your plan. 

You should be able to get your plan half finished if you have multiple items you can get in 15-minute sessions. Feel free to make this first plan a practice where you're only creating a plan for one or two easy to access items. This will get you used to creating a plan within your set-up and help you discover if you're missing something or if something is too hard to use in your situation.

If you think it will take a lot longer to create your plan than two 15-minute sessions, simplify. Your goal may be too broad.

Genealogy research plans are not these massive all-encompassing plans. I know that's what I thought when I was first learning about them. It's much simpler.

(Note: We don't normally create a plan to research a single document unless it's more complicated than a look-up you can do in 15 minutes. However, if you need to keep it that simple while you learn, do it. Better to practice than not!).

A good way to try and break a plan down to work with your schedule is aim for a plan you can do in five 15-minute sessions (or three or four if that's the number of sessions in a week for you).

If you are going to research in a longer session, your plan is based on what you believe will answer your research question. That's why you need a research question, not a huge goal like "find all my paternal ancestors" (hint: you'll never finish creating a plan for a goal like that!).

Here's another "rule" that changed how I looked at research planning (it makes it easier). You don't create a plan for hypothetical situations. You plan for what you WILL do and then you create another plan based on what you found. Don't create a hypothetical plan based on what you MIGHT find.

An actionable research plan is very short. You may have a broader set of ideas, with a handful of research questions, you think of as a "plan." That's not what we call a research plan. It's the plan for each research question that is actionable.

Day three: 

  • Finish your plan. 
  • If you have time, begin prepping your log and notes. 
You plan should include:
  • background information
  • your research question
  • your limitations
  • the sources you plan to check

Background Information and Research Question

Think of the background information as a summary of what you've done (and is relevant to this research question). We've already discussed your research question.

Research Limitations

Your limitations are what you can access to implement this plan. For this recipe, you are likely limited to online sources you can access from the place you are working (and in 15-minute sessions if that's how you're working). These limitations are part of what keeps your plan small, actionable, and manageable.

You might need to create another plan for the same research question with different limitations. This is related to not creating hypothetical plans AND to the first part of the Genealogical Proof Standard, performing a reasonably exhaustive search.

Without writing another post's worth of information on what reasonably exhaustive research is, just because you find an "answer" to your research question, that doesn't automatically mean you're done. Any source can be wrong and you want to make sure you aren't continuing research based on bad information.

However, finding an answer, regardless if it turns out to be right or wrong will affect your next plan as will not finding an answer. That's why you don't create hypothetical plans.

Create a plan for the next thing you will do (you can start a plan to keep track of notes on a specific source but if you do related research before following the plan, it'll need updating).

Sources to Check

This is what it sounds like. I'm imagining your sources for 15-minute sessions will be pretty easy. Things you can think of off the top of your head.

However, it is perfectly OK to need to do research into the types of sources that exist and where they are. If that is your situation, your plan will take longer and that's fine.

Day four:

The Best Research Shortcut

  • Prep your log and note forms.
If you didn't have time to start when you finished your plan, copy the first source you want to look at to your log and onto your notes. This is where you'll save time on the day you do the lookup, without cheating the research process.

Only include sources you will definitely look at. You might not look at some things based on your previous findings, don't waste time prepping for those. You may want to look at all the sources you've thought of regardless of what you find in each. Prep all of them ahead of time, then.
  • Get any citation parts you can, without doing the actual lookup.

Day five:

Research Time!

  • Do your first lookup.
  • Record the citation parts,
  • take notes,
  • summarize your findings in your log and
  • enter any cross-reference information so you can find copies of the item and/or your notes.

Repeat day five for each record.

If you come across a record that you need to think about for longer than you have time, just come back to it the next day. That's part of why I suggest doing this in daily 15-minute sessions instead of longer sessions with long breaks between.

Even in a longer research session, you might still have to stop before you've finished analyzing a source and you WILL loose some information or ideas if the break is too long.

Find what works for you (I'd prefer to spend a week, alone, at the Family History Library to do my research, but I'd be happy with short weekly sessions---I don't get a lunch break I can research on, anymore).

First day after you're done:

  • Review all your notes and make summary notes.

This is the start of your report so write on your report form if using paper.

Add'l days

Each successive day, review multiple notes (and even documents) related to this goal and write your thoughts. If you already know how to report, that's what you're doing. If you don't, just go over everything for this goal and record your thoughts, compare information from different documents, etc. Don't forget to note any ideas about new sources to check (this will become your next plan).

Working on the reporting step will make the biggest difference in your research success. Don't get hung up on writing a "report." If you're working in 15 minutes (or even an hour), just focus on reviewing the documents you found for this goal. You can review previous plans if you wish but don't do more research, make notes about the additional research to do.

Once you complete the report/review days, you should essentially have your next plan. You may need to compile it onto one form for easy access (or you may have the makings of several plans for related research questions).

If you only have one obvious research question to answer, next, you're probably ready to start back at day three. Regardless, prepare your next actionable plan. If you can't do the research in 15-minute sessions (either because it's too long or isn't online), prepare a plan for what you need to do.

If you have more than 15 minutes, you can obviously do more in a day but the order is essentially the same.

You can adjust by coming back to your plan after finding (or not finding) a few key documents. Don't add to it constantly, though. You need to do the reporting step (and it is sooooooo hard to come back to it, better to write many short reports than one long one).

Is Paper Your Best Choice?

Describing the process using paper makes me scream in my head "no wonder only retirees did genealogy before computers!" Oh my goodness! All the rewriting you have to do.

Reduce the amount of recopying by hand as much as possible. Be careful not to cheat, though. I know this can be hard.

Stay Organized

Finally, make sure you keep everything you create organized. This schedule will create an actionable plan that you perform, a report/review of what you did, and your next plan (which you may not be able to use immediately). You'll need to be able to find your research log, notes, report/review, and unused (or incomplete) plans in the future. You may or may not need to keep your used plan.

So that's the recipe for Elephant ala Genealogy (a genealogy project). Not all research can be done in short sessions. Doing all the prep work you can as well as the research that is possible will make the most of your longer research sessions. You'll also find you're more motivated to do research when everything is ready. For me, that means I will try harder to find make the time for that research.

This recipe really flew through the research process. What questions do you have? Do you foresee any pitfalls doing this process in short-sessions? Leave a comment.
The Occasional Genealogist image for how to eat an elephant -- bite-size genealogy research planning

The Occasional Genealogist image for how to eat an elephant -- bite-size genealogy research planning


  1. I am a "middle beginner" Still in that tentative stage. Prooving what I thought I knew is a major part of where I am. I have discovered some info on my own, great grandparents, when all I had was last name and approx location! I was hooked!. In another article I read about name collectors. That's what I have been- but with your and other articles I'm finding people, family, and stories not just names. Thank you for the inspiration.

    1. I'm so glad you've been inspired! I think the phase your describing is probably one of the most exciting (at least for me it was). There's so much to learn and so much family history to discover. I really enjoyed the excitement of being able to use clues, instead of outright facts, to learn things. As you do more and more research, naturally your "returns" come in slower because you've found all the easy information so later phases aren't as exciting. Of course, many genealogists discover there's gold in their file cabinet when they get to that point (or maybe a better description is diamonds---it was coal when you put it there, with new knowledge, it seems to magically have turned into diamonds).


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