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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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2 Secrets to Genealogy Success

Happy Family History Month!

This is the first post related to the Family History Month 2019 Collection.

(Updated for 2023)

To kick off the Collection, I've created an exclusive Family History Month Planner.

I think we all know it's no longer 2019. All the FHM2019 posts are still relevant but the free Collection isn't available.

Instead, you can do one of the following:

I'll explain how the paid products are related to this post in a moment.

So why do I create genealogy planners? It's because there are two simple secrets to genealogy success many hobbyists overlook.

They are:

  • Planning and
  • Goal Setting

There are lots of types of plans and goals you can use in genealogy but the two simplest, that are probably the most overlooked, are related to a planner, as in a calendar or personal schedule.

The type of planning I'm going to talk about in this post is planning your time or scheduling. Later this week I'm featuring research planning. This post is also focused on general goal setting like you do in a daily planner not in crafting research goals or asking research questions (I'd consider research planning and research goal setting "skipped" secrets, not "overlooked" secrets because many genealogist have heard those terms and choose not to do them. By the way, they are also pretty easy as you'll learn later this week).

If you've been trying to do more genealogy or feel like you never get anywhere with your family history research, I hope you'll give these two easy secrets a try.

The Occasional Genealogist Planner + Digital Dashboard is designed specifically to help Occasional Genealogists:
- plan their time,
- plan their genealogy,
and honestly, just keep up with all the "stuff" you need to keep organized when you only occasionally get to work on your genealogy. Learn more about the Planner+Dashboard, here.

To get started understanding the value of goal setting and time-planning, I think you need to see how genealogists have changed, even though genealogy really hasn't.

Problems with Online Genealogy

It's not them, it's you.

I've written several posts about genealogy shortcuts and shortcuts versus cheats. The reason is I've seen (over my 30+ years in genealogy) people trying to take the same shortcuts. It doesn't matter if they had to do research in a library or they could do it online.

As online research has gotten more prominent, I've felt there's a push of "oh, we don't need to do it that way, things have changed."

Well, things have changed, but the tried and true advice is still accurate and correct. What changed is how you access records, and the genealogists.

The world is now full of "Occasional Genealogists." And I think we're the problem, not how you do genealogy. But I don't mean that in a negative way. You just need to see what the problem is, instead of blindly stumbling around or blaming "outdated" methods (because they aren't outdated).

If you haven't noticed, this is "The Occasional Genealogist." My specialty is helping Occasional Genealogists, because most of my life I've been one. An Occasional Genealogist is someone that only occasionally gets to work on their own genealogy research.

In addition to being a chronic Occasional Genealogist, I've also been a hobbyist "often genealogist." Add to that, I have the advantage of also being a professional genealogist. That means I have first-hand experience doing genealogy research under nearly ideal conditions.

I have the most experience doing genealogy research under nothing even close to ideal conditions, though.

Occasional Genealogists don't do genealogy regularly. I do genealogy nearly every day but it isn't my own. I rarely get to work on my own genealogy, probably less than most of you reading this (because I'm writing this instead of doing my own genealogy, for one thing!).

In my situation, I have the skills but I still have the very modern problems of any Occasional Genealogist.

Short sessions of research or very infrequent research is not how we're taught to do genealogy.

Let me tell you, it makes a huge difference! That's why I started this blog.

In a moment, I'll bring all of this back to goals and schedules because it's something really simple most hobbyist genealogists overlook. First, I need to give you some background to help you wrap your mind around the big picture of genealogy.

Old School Genealogy vs. Online Genealogy

So back in the day, genealogy was only for retirees.

There was a good reason and a reason you need to bring to the front of your mind to understand why you might be struggling in today's genealogy world.

Prior to genealogy records being available online, you had to either go to a repository to get records yourself or write to get records mailed to you. Many records were only available in one place or only in the primary jurisdiction (in the U.S., you'd likely need to at least visit the state your ancestor lived in, if not the county or town).

Obviously, if you had to travel you made good use of that travel time and didn't just get one record, you got everything you could. Writing for records was pretty involved, too. We're talking before the Internet, so you had to figure out who to write to.

Either scenario required a lot of free time, hence genealogy was mainly for retirees.

Fast forward to today and you can pull up records on your smartphone while waiting for your oil to be changed or during your lunch break. Genealogy can now be done by anyone with any type of free time.

Genealogy can now be done by anyone with any type of free time.

This is where the importance of the "Occasional Genealogist" concept comes in.

Years ago I got a book called The Weekend Genealogist which was the first time I came across a similar concept. When I started The Occasional Genealogist blog, I opened up my copy of The Weekend Genealogist for inspiration.

Do you know what I found?

It wasn't for my idea of an Occasional Genealogist at all!

It was for non-retirees trying to do genealogy in the pre-online research world. People who still had hours (i.e. most of a weekend) to spend on genealogy.

Conventional genealogy advice assumes you will spend hours on genealogy at a time.

If you can, you should spend hours of focused time on genealogy. Genealogy is done better under those circumstances.

I'm pretty sure genealogy is an addiction, though. So, I'm here to help you with the reality of WANTING to do genealogy even if you can't give it hours at one time or those hours contain many distractions.

After spending years focused on the issues of Occasional Genealogists, I've found two simple and overlooked keys are having goals and having a schedule. The Planner in the Family History Month 2019 Collection is designed to help you with both (get the Planner in the free Resource Library, it includes undated printables you can still use, plus the Library includes more downloads).

During the rest of the month I'll feature other tools I've adapted to keep the spirit of traditional methodology while adjusting to the reality of Occasional Genealogy. You can also check out other posts on this blog. My particular favorite is my original one about shortcuts, not cheats, "Three Genealogy Shortcuts That Aren't Cheats."

Our updated version of The Occasional Genealogist Planner now includes a Digital Dashboard. This product was specifically designed to help today's Occasional Genealogist use time-planning plus digital organization to do great genealogy, despite the interruptions. It includes many more done-for-you resources than our free Resource Library.

Scheduling Time for Genealogy

If you want to do more genealogy, you need to schedule time for it. This is just like trying to start exercising more or eating healthy. You need a plan and that plan usually involves a calendar (the calendar relates to eating healthy because meal planning helps keep you from ordering pizza in a pinch!).

The calendar and schedule printables in the Planner are tools to help you craft a schedule, hopefully that includes genealogy. If you successfully use another planner or calendar, use it. I use a combination of a printed planner and Google calendar.

I recommend taking a look at the whole month of October, and maybe the rest of 2019 and see where you can do more genealogy and what kind of genealogy.

For example, if you're visiting a relative, that's the time to talk to them or get a DNA test. If you're visiting the beach, it might not be the time for research, but maybe you have time for planning. You might be travelling or have lots of appointments this month or for the rest of the year. Maybe you need to be really conservative about how much genealogy you can do.

Part of scheduling is also being realistic so you don't get discouraged with a lack of progress or so you do a little genealogy rather than completely losing your momentum.

Big Genealogy Goals

You can schedule time for genealogy but you will do better genealogy if you have a plan for what you'll do. Later this week I'll talk about research planning but I find it best (as an Occasional Genealogist) to have a handful of broad goals I'm interested in so I can pick a task I'm interested in and fits my time (this concept is what gave birth to the Digital Dashboard we now include with The Occasional Genealogist Planner).

Having only one research plan doesn't mean I have the resources to execute that plan. I need choices.

There are also other things you can do in genealogy besides research (following a research plan).

There are other kinds of research:

  • learning where records are kept
  • researching educational opportunities
  • researching any topic where you need to gather information before taking action
    • travel
    • repositories
    • education
    • financial options
    • online record options
    • (and much more).

There's also getting education or doing something genealogy-related like writing your family history.

You can see there are so many facets of genealogy. Without any goals, you'll just randomly do something and in many cases, you'll have to redo it because you weren't set up to keep (and later find) what you just did.

Use the goal-setting printables in the Collection to help you brainstorm and then narrow down your goals. If you want a more robust option, check out our Planner+Dashborad.

Lastly, with scheduling and goal setting, nothing is written in stone. This is a process. Create a schedule for yourself and adapt it. Set a few goals. You can change your goals and you can certainly "fail" and start over.

Your Genealogy Box

For those of you who think a schedule or sticking with goals is constricting or puts you in a box (and you like to think outside the box), I have an analogy just for you.

A schedule and goal setting are like applying science to nature.

You naturally want to do genealogy. And naturally your interests are all over the place and your actions are everywhere, like the wind or the sun.

When air and light are focused, we get flight, wind power, lasers, and most importantly, tin foil-lined boxes where you can cook a hot dog.

There's not just one way to focus the wind or the sun and focusing them doesn't make their natural state bad, it just gives controllable results, often REALLY controlled results.

If you want your research to take flight or to slice through that brick wall, you have to focus your genealogy. The first way is controlling your time (scheduling) and focusing on less (setting a few goals). You can then apply more tools to further focus your energy.

Instead of imagining "thinking outside the box" (which is very important in genealogy), we're talking about Your Genealogy Box like a treasure chest. If you don't put what you want in the box, it'll get lost, people will steal it, and you can't do what you want with it.

Create your schedule, plan to do some genealogy, and decide what goals matter to you. Take control of your genealogy.

Throughout this month I'll write about other tools to help you take what's in the box and get more and more results.