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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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How to Bust a Brick Wall When You're Too Busy for Genealogy

It takes time to bust a genealogy brick wall. There are no magic shortcuts. If you truly don't have time for genealogy, you can't bust a brick wall (you would need to have someone else do it for you, either a volunteer or pay someone). But you're reading this so you've found some time for genealogy. Here's what you can do...

There are no magic shortcuts to bust a brick wall faster. Instead, you need a combination of specialized genealogy knowledge and general efficiency tricks.

The purpose of this post is to mainly show you a "new" efficiency trick to help you bust a brick wall when you just don't have as much time as you'd like. But you MUST also have genealogy knowledge to bust a brick wall.

If you're looking for brick wall buster tips, those are genealogy knowledge. This post won't give you brick wall busters. Instead, use the efficiency trick, first.

It should actually be easier to find the right brick wall buster by starting with the efficiency trick.

Skills for When You Hit a Genealogy Brick Wall

There are two types of genealogy knowledge you must have to solve a difficult problem. One is knowledge related to your specific brick wall. That means you must know the details of your brick wall. Often you need to break the problem into sub-problems which require even more specialized knowledge.

This is the purpose of step 1 and our caveated step 6 in our Brick Wall Solution Roadmap. 

(You can request a free copy of the Roadmap and its educational email series, here.)

The other type of genealogy knowledge is more general. You need to know how to do genealogy well. Here at The Occasional Genealogist, we like to call this "great genealogy." This also has aspects that are specific to your brick wall but mostly means doing great genealogy in a general sense.

The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap is a map to doing great genealogy for busting a brick wall. Steps 2 through 5 are the general steps you always take (if you're doing great genealogy) when researching a brick wall. Skipping these steps results in less than great genealogy.

Take a Step from Behind a Brick Wall

When you skip the key steps from the Roadmap, you unnecessarily fumble around with the same brick wall for years. I created The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap so you'd know the most basic steps for great genealogy (when your goal is busting a brick wall). You can do this!

But this is also the great news about genealogy. You don't need to start by doing great genealogy to find success. In fact, you must practice to progressively improve. The goal is great genealogy and the most important thing (if you want to continue to find success and enjoy doing genealogy) is to work towards improving. If you only try to do less-than-mediocre genealogy, you'll only be successful with simple problems. Whenever you encounter something harder, you'll become frustrated. That's no fun.

There are some problems that appear to be brick walls at first. When you start following the research process and aim for great genealogy, you may find you can simply step around the brick wall. Sometimes it is that simple.

Sorry, Your Genealogy Brick Wall is Really Hard!

The bad news with genealogy is, you have zero control over whether you encounter easy or hard problems in your research. Some people have a family tree full of tough problems, others have ones that are easy for generations. Most contain a mix of easy and hard genealogy problems. Eventually everyone's tree becomes harder to research.

Most genealogists encounter their first few brick walls because the problem is harder than their skill level. I've found the answer to several 20-year brick walls (other people's) in five minutes because they simple made no effort to learn something new (in these cases, they made no effort to learn what kind of record could solve their problem or where to find the type of record).

If you're reading this, you are unlikely to have created a brick wall out of a situation that simple. My point is, "brick wall" doesn't automatically indicate a universal difficulty level. It is a brick wall that stopped YOU on the path you were following to build your family tree. Improving your genealogy skills should always be a part of how you try to solve the problem. It could be your general skills or it could be skills specific to the problem.

There's another reason you need to try and do great genealogy in general. I've already said you need general efficiency tricks to bust a brick wall when you're short on time. These can be misapplied to genealogy and result in "cheats" instead of shortcuts. That's because, unlike most projects we encounter in life, genealogy is never really done and builds on itself forever. Making a mistake now can impact future genealogy significantly.

Once again, you won't do great genealogy as soon as you start. Doing your best is the best you can do. If that's what you try to do, you'll improve as you do more genealogy.

Here's an important hint: Step 2 of The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap is the key to finding and fixing any problems you've caused in your research in the past.

That means problems you caused because of a lack of knowledge or experience and also problems because you simply hadn't found information you have now uncovered. Genealogy is more like a quest than a building project. You can't just gather all the needed supplies and build your family tree like you would a house. You will come across your "supplies" as you go and you have limited control over what you find when. Once again, every genealogist just has to do their best with what they have.

That's actually all I want to cover in this post related to genealogy-specific skills. There are plenty of other posts on the blog that go into details of skills you need. You can try out this one about the genealogy research process as well as learning about The Brick Wall Solution Roadmap.

Non-Genealogy Skills for Tough Research

OK! Now this post is going into a topic I haven't really written about before. You needed to understand this information alone is not enough to bust a brick wall. Genealogy-specific knowledge is an important component.

But this is The Occasional Genealogist. The whole purpose of the blog is you're short on time. You need a shortcut!

Keep in mind, you need to understand how to do genealogy (preferably great genealogy) to make sure you don't create a cheat when you want a shortcut. I actually go into this in a lot more detail in my book Essential Skills for the Occasional Genealogist.

But let's talk about making genealogical progress when you're just too busy for genealogy. This post has two suggestions that help you in different ways (and can be combined).

Non- research Strategies for Brick Wall Busting

As I've already said, you have to have some time for genealogy to bust a brick wall unless you want to have someone else bust the brick wall for you. That is always a way to make more time for yourself, pay someone to do things you would otherwise be spending your time on.

If you want to bust the brick wall, you could pay to have groceries delivered instead of driving to the store and doing your own grocery shopping (I'm not sure shopping for groceries online is actually faster for me than doing it in person. Ordering groceries is cheaper than eating out every night because I never made it to the store, though). You could pay someone to clean the house or do the lawn instead of spending your own time to do it. We all have limited time. Paying to get something done faster is one way to create more time for yourself.

Hiring a professional genealogist is very expensive. It also steals the fun of doing it yourself (it hopefully gets you a genealogist with greater skills than yours, so you may still be interested in it as an option). 

If you have some money to spend, but not enough to pay a professional genealogist, think about what else you spend your time on that you could pay someone to do for you. There are many options that will be cheaper than hiring a genealogist and get you hours of time you can spend on genealogy.

So that's an efficiency "trick," paying someone to gain yourself time.

But here's a free option.

Not a Research Plan but Still Genealogy Planning

When you're busy, one of the best ways to accomplish something you've been struggling with is breaking it down. For a genealogy brick wall, you need to go from having a "genealogy project" (the brick wall project) to achievable projects, like you'd do in other aspects of your life.

If you wanted to renovate your bedroom yourself, you wouldn't try to "renovate the bedroom." You'd determine exactly what you wanted to do. That might be picking a color scheme or style. Then you'd shop for bedding. You'd paint the walls. You'd move furniture around.

Each of those activities you could fit into your calendar so you could start and finish them. I've essentially listed activities you could do in a weekend. That's how you tackle projects, usually. Not necessarily weekend by weekend, but broken up so you know when you can work on them.

I used to crochet when I had free time (before I had kids). I could work on projects riding the Metro to work. I could crochet while watching T.V. or riding in the car. When I really wanted to finish a project, I would even take projects to dinners with a group (such as going to watch my husband's out-of-town football team with an alumni club). I got a lot of crochet projects finished that way. (And crocheting at a group dinner actually encourages conversations more than staring at a wall because you don't like sports).

You may be using this do-it-whenever-you-can strategy that with genealogy. But there may be a significant difference.

With my crochet projects, I had an item I was making. I knew what to do and in what order. I knew when I was done. The same would apply to renovating the bedroom (if you've ever tried to redecorate and it never ended, did you know the order to do things in and when it was finished? Either of those can lead to a never ending project!).

Genealogy never ends. If you try to do genealogy whenever you can, but don't know the order to do things in or when you're "done," you won't make very much progress. The progress you make will essentially be due to luck.

That's the efficiency "trick" here.

Goal > Project > Sub-project > Question > Plan

You need to break your brick wall project (or whatever genealogy goal you have) into easily completable projects. As I was thinking about this post, I realized this is another time I really hate our genealogy terms. We talk about genealogy "projects" all the time but they are either genealogy goals (busting a brick wall is a goal) or more like a habit, something you have to keep doing (building your family tree is like a habit because it doesn't have an end).

In the non-genealogy world, talking about a project often is far more finite. Projects at work are a goal that can be broken down to be achieved. Usually there are ways to determine the project is finished and successful. If those elements are missing, there are problems. You might go way over budget or create a product that doesn't function. There are metrics for success, the more concrete, the better.

Genealogy appears to work this way, but does it? When you bust the brick wall you are done. But how do you know your solution is correct? That becomes another project. So you aren't actually done. You can't set a timeline to bust the brick wall. That's why hiring a genealogist is usually so expensive. It takes how long it takes. You can't control the order you find information or even if the information can be found.

Busting a brick wall is like a business project that lacks a timeline, budget, or metrics for success.

That project can be done successfully, but it's harder, more expensive, more frustrating, and slower.

Businesses that want to stay in business have to learn to avoid projects of that type. But what can a genealogist do if they want to pursue their vaguely defined brick wall project?

Here's What You Can Do

You can't control the important aspects of a brick wall project (I mean the important project aspects, like timeline and budget). 

You can define the brick wall and this is key for success. 

But you need to see the genealogical definition as one part of the project. Once again, part of the issue is how we use the word project. The solution is to create "achievable projects."

These will look very different from a "brick wall project," although they might be selected to bust the brick wall. This is partially an issue of semantics. You want projects like a crochet project. Gather the supplies and do the project.

For this discussion, an achievable project is one where you gather the supplies and do the project. That's essentially a firm start and a firm finish. No waffling around.

I just told you that's not how genealogy works, though! That is why this is something you must intentionally do. 

Building your family tree is on-going. Busting a brick wall can be on-going. You have no control over exactly how long it will take.

An achievable project is something you can control. That is the purpose.

Break It Up

Earlier I listed these items:

Goal > Project > Sub-project > Question > Plan

Your brick wall project is either a goal or a project. It simply depends on whether the brick wall needs to be solved to achieve a goal like joining a lineage society, finding out information for a specific relative, or creating a frameable five generation tree. If your larger goal is to do genealogy or research as much of your tree as possible, I'd call the brick wall a goal (the others are more habits).

I've avoided talking about sub-projects or mini-projects in this post because I'm using the word project so much. I just want you to recognize you can create a series of progressively smaller items if you think about it. 

You might need mini-projects between the sub-project and question. The point is, you break things down as much as needed. I'm suggesting "achievable projects" which is different than research planning but this concept is a core part of genealogy. We just don't talk about doing it between a project and plan that often.

Break your goal down to a project and then break the project down however is necessary so you can create research plans and make progress on your brick wall project.

If your project is research, you are still following the Brick Wall Solution Roadmap. The project you define in step 1 may not look at all like your brick wall project, though. You want something you know you can complete in a given timeframe. 

This timeframe doesn't need to be, "it'll take four hours." You just need something you can finish, soon. So, maybe you think it'll take four hours. You can do that this Saturday. But your timeframe is you can finish the project this month---that's a fallback if it isn't finished on Saturday.

You also need to pick projects you have the "supplies" for. This could be access to a subscription online or at your local library/FamilySearch Center. Genealogists too often skip this aspect, even when they intend to create research plans.

You can want to make a purple shell stitch shawl all you want. You may be the fastest, best shell stitcher in the tri-state area. If you don't have the supplies, that shawl will never happen. You can want to follow the genealogy research process and have all sorts of crazy skills, but it also takes supplies. We think of online subscriptions but it can be anything. It could be books you know are at the state archive. It could be microfilm you know is available at the local college. It could be talking to Aunt Bertha.

Here's another key distinction we tend to skip in genealogy.

If you don't know what supplies you need, that is a project that must be done, first. This is why it might take a sub-project that has a mini-project, that needs a sub-mini-project... You get the idea. I haven't talked about a research plan, yet. All these things to reach an "achievable project" are still projects. They are related but they aren't the goal and they aren't a research question or research plan. they happen in-between.

Sometimes this approach for breaking a project down to something do-able is taught as backing up until you know what steps to take. I often find that overwhelming (steps are individual actions. It takes a lot of them to do anything genealogical). If that works for you, do that. Break your larger project down until you've got steps you can follow.

If identifying individual steps is too much for you, simply focus on the next thing you must do or the next achievable project you must do.

Here's an example.

Example Project: Create a Research Plan to Find John's Father

You've been reading this blog for awhile and you're ready to bust your brick wall of who John Ledford's father is. You've got your copy of the Brick Wall Solution Roadmap and you're gung-ho to do GREAT genealogy.

That means you realize you'll need to create a research plan.

Are you ready to create that research plan? Let's say, no. Here is what might go through your mind and how to turn that into an achievable project.

You can't create a research plan because:

  1. You're not sure how to create a research plan.
  2. You aren't sure what research you've done.
  3. You don't know what sources you want to use.

At this point you should ask yourself what the very next thing you need to do is. If you have no idea, think about your options and ask yourself if you can do that thing right now (or as soon as you have time). Whenever you answer yourself, "no, I can't do that action ASAP" figure out why you can't. That will back you up to the next thing you must do. But let's keep going with this example because I picked it for a reason.

Do you need to learn to create a research plan next or review what you've already done? Should you learn what sources you can use?

There is no point learning about sources until you review what you have already done. There may be clues to sources in that information. But it might be better to learn how to create a research plan before you try to review or vice versa. 

You can't create the research plan until you've reviewed (that's part of the Roadmap---actions that need to happen in a certain order). But you might find it helpful to know how to create a research plan first, because you'll use the results of your review to create it. How you review could change once you learn to create a research plan. Conversely, you might understand creating a research plan better if you've reviewed this brick wall.

My point is, some actions have a specific order and some are up to you. Don't let indecision stop you from doing anything. You want to think before you decide what to do but if you don't know, just do something!

Even if you did start by learning about sources, that wouldn't be the end of the world. You might duplicate effort versus if you learned about sources after your review, but you made more progress versus doing nothing due to indecision.

So how could we get from our non-actionable brick wall to a small project we can actually complete? I'd want to review what I'd already done. 

(If you want to know my reasoning...I know how to create a research plan but if this was some genealogical thing I was aware of but didn't know how to do, I'd take the chance I could figure out a next step after the review. I'd likely know what to do next based on the results of the review. I've spent years figuring out what I need to learn to solve tough genealogy problems, so I know reviewing first often works.)

Can I do this review right now? No. Why? Because I have to find the material related to that brick wall. Can I find that material right now? Yes. The achievable project you want to work on for this hypothetical example is finding the material for the brick wall (not doing the actual review!). 

If the answer were "no, because I don't have time," you need to make sure you know if you need to create a project to make time or simply wait a short time and do this project. 

Whether your project should be making time or you should wait is a hard example for me to give. You need to think about your situation and be honest with yourself to determine the best next action for you. 

Too often genealogists think "I'll do it soon" and never get to it. That's when you need to create a project to make time (or admit you truly don't have time for genealogy). Sometimes you really will do it soon and that's OK.

If you are just really, really busy, the great thing about the achievable projects approach is you can do small tasks to prepare for your project. Projects that aren't research based (including creating your research plan, just not executing it) aren't that hard to slowly work on.

Sometimes spreading research out that way doesn't work. When you stop trying to focus on an entire brick wall project but instead tackle the little sub-projects, you can often do more genealogy or at least more useful genealogy. Instead of searching the same sources over and over again, getting the same lack of results, your sub-projects may be non-research. They help move you forward so when you do research, you make progress.

This post gave you one generic example. I'm working on a follow-up post that gives more details on how Occasional Genealogists can create small achievable projects so they keep making progress on their genealogy.


What does it take for busy people to bust a brick wall? First you'll need genealogical knowledge. You need knowledge related to the specific brick wall but just as important, you need to know how to do the best genealogy you can (aim to do great genealogy, even if you're still working towards that).

But when you're "too busy," you also need to employ efficiency tricks which don't necessarily need to be genealogy specific. Your great genealogy knowledge will help you make sure you don't create a cheat when you meant to use a shortcut.

An example of an efficiency trick is creating more time (which you can use for genealogy) by paying someone to do something you've been doing yourself. Paying someone to do your genealogy research is quite expensive and steals your fun. It's an option, particularly if you need expertise, but consider less expensive non-genealogy services to buy yourself time.

My best efficiency trick for busy people is to break your genealogy into an achievable project.  This will be different than most "genealogy projects" because it is more like a craft project or even a work project. 

You want a timeline/timeframe, and a way to know when the project is complete. This is best done by having metrics to determine if you were successful. The follow-up post will go into more details on these aspects because they will be specific for your project. A metric could be using a selection of sources you've identified but it could be spending a certain amount of time on a chosen task. The follow-up post will look at examples.

To wrap this up, I've talked about the need for sub-projects before. But those were still "genealogy projects" which would be done when they were done. This post is suggesting a project where you can gather your "supplies" and complete the project (complete it relatively easily, not after years of work!).

As a blogger, I have a lot of colleagues in non-genealogy fields and for the last two years, all of us have been hearing readers want things they can easily finish, regardless of the topic. It used to be, readers wanted comprehensive information. There's more emphasis now on avoiding overwhelm which is far more reasonable. That's the purpose of an "achievable project." 

If you're a busy person who wants to keep doing genealogy, break your research down. Every genealogist needs to do sub-projects, that is sub-research, for a tough problem. When you're busy, you really need to make sure you select "projects" that you can start and finish in a short amount of time. These may not look like the type of projects a genealogist with more time would create. These achievable projects will help you keep making progress and also make sure genealogy remains fun instead of frustrating.

At the start of this post I suggested you should try the trick (achievable projects) first. That will make finding the right brick wall buster easy. If you don't see how, I'll explain.

Hunting for the right brick wall buster often doesn't work because you're focused on a goal or too big a project. Finding the right brick wall buster should be one of your achievable projects. But you won't start there. Make sure you start with the brick wall project and do all the necessary achievable projects to have the existing research, knowledge, and information to help you know what you're looking for.

You may still end up finding a brick wall buster. However, you might realize you just need to look for specific sources. Regardless of what the solution ends up being, you're more likely to make progress by working through a series of achievable projects. Create a firm foundation built on everything you've already done. Without this you're usually relying on an online search that will produce results more by luck than design.