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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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Free Genealogy Help: Genealogy Goals

Are you looking for free genealogy help to improve your genealogy skills?

This is one of my "mini-posts" to help you get some quick answers and then find what will really help you.

This post is for people with questions about defining a genealogy goal or asking a genealogy "research question." I also need it as a reference when one of my posts mentions this topic but I don't want to cover it within that post. This is a topic that can come up a lot!
If this post doesn't help, you can find the list of all posts in this series, here.

One reason this topic needs to be discussed is there's a bit of a difference between a "genealogy goal" and a "genealogy research question." We tend to use them interchangeably in some cases and often we bring in non-genealogy inferences that end up causing a problem.

The specific situation I'm thinking about is...

Research Planning

To create a research plan you need a "goal." I've put that in quotes because this is where we run into a problem.

You actually need to ask a narrow "research question," not set a goal. How often in your non-genealogical life have you had to craft a "research question?" Unless you are in a research-field of study or career, probably never.

It's quite common to need to set a goal in everyday life.

So, it's easy to say and remember that your research plan needs a "goal."

You absolutely can not create a research plan without something like a goal (so you could call it a goal or focus or research question, it's all the same required function in a research plan).

Focus for Genealogy

I've now been writing The Occasional Genealogist for over four years and I never dealt with genealogy "goals" more than for this blog. I was already working as a professional genealogist before I started the blog and I had been a hobbyist genealogist for well over a decade before that.

That means I've talked about genealogy goals more for this blog than when I created "goals" for research plans for myself and clients (and I can tell you, for most of my early genealogy years I didn't get this distinction between a goal and a research question, even when I first started as a professional genealogist, thankfully I learned quickly).

Why do you care?

There is a place for both goals and research questions in genealogy.

This mini-post is a little different as it's a gateway post. To keep it shorter, I'm going to describe the difference between when you'd use a "goal" versus a "research question" and then send you to different posts about the "how-to" for each of those since you may not need one or the other (or this wasn't what you needed, anyway).

I've discovered the secret to genealogical success, no matter the specifics, is focus. If you're working with DNA, you need focus. If you need to do traditional research, you need focus. If you need to learn about genealogy, you need focus.

Goals and research questions are all about focus.

Goal Setting for Genealogists

Here's how I break this down.

Goals are like a New Year's Resolution. They can be broader or narrower but they are an end destination, not how you'll get there.

A goal (or resolution) would be "lose 10 lbs." You then have to add constraints and break it down to achieve it but the goal is losing 10 lbs. You don't care if you achieve all the necessary steps if you don't achieve the goal (theoretically, obviously achieving the steps might have advantages but go with me).

So a genealogy goal could be "find the father of _____" or "discover my Mayflower ancestors." These are too broad to be research questions but we often think they will work to focus our research plan.

Creating Genealogy Research Questions

We create a research plan to work through the steps leading to our goal. That means using our goal to focus our plan doesn't work. That's a loop.

You have a genealogy goal and you're going to break it down with research plans. If you focus your research plan with your goal, you still need to break the goal down to achieve it.

Instead of focusing on your "goal," you need to craft a narrow research question to focus your research plan.

A major problem is people think a research plan is for achieving a goal, as in a goal like "lose 10 lbs." I'll use the weight-loss analogy since that's something we can all imagine (even if you haven't attempted it).

You may have heard of SMART goals and if so, those are the constraints you need to apply. An example of a constraint is time. "I'm going to lose 10 lbs. by June 4th." Once you decide on all the constraints, you break your goal down into what has to be done.

"I'll walk for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week," "I'll stop drinking soda," and so on.

The list of constraints and activities (which is a plan to achieve your goal) are not like your research plan. Your research plan is equivalent to "I'll walk for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week."

You have to take that one step and figure out when in your day you'll do it and maybe deal with issues like child care while you walk, or what you'll wear, or what to do if it rains everyday for three months. There's a plan for that one step.

Sometimes we need to make a general plan to determine what research plan to create first. That's actually reviewing what you've already done and possibly surveying what sources are available (which does involve research in some cases).

Most of us can do that without too much instruction.

It's the actual research plan, that very specific plan, we need help with. I've found once you master asking a narrow research question, the plan usually creates itself.

Links to More Free Genealogy Help

To learn more about genealogy goal setting and more general planning, I have several posts you can check-out.

To learn more about asking a narrow research question, check-out this mini-post.

If you have questions about the suggestions in this mini-post, leave a comment. If you were looking for something slightly different, I'd also love to hear about it so I can improve this series of "Free Genealogy Help."

Find the full list of mini-posts, here.