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How To Trace Your Family Tree,  Organize Your Genealogy

How to Research Genealogy In 20 Minutes a Day

How many of you have sat down to do a quick look-up on an ancestor…..and dinner was suddenly cereal again? (Ahem.)

Researching your ancestors is exciting, fascinating, overwhelming and time consuming.  Most of us don’t have 2-3 hours a day to research. We do need to sleep sometime.

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Reader Insight and Challenge: Emma’s Dilemma

Reader Emma recently wrote to me:

I’m trying to get back into doing my research– so right now I’m making a plan to carve out time AND be productive in getting back into the swing of things. I would like to spend 20 to 30 minutes a day doing research.  My challenge is where to start and how to stay focused daily so I don’t have to backtrack or start over every day.

(Thanks, Emma, for asking what many of us have been struggling with!)

We all desire to be efficient, successful AND productive researchers.  We want to find our ancestors and we don’t want to waste time doing it. To do that, we need a plan!

The most successful plan for short bursts of research is the one you consistently perform.

Just as we discussed in the organizing your genealogy post, give yourself time to let you personal system evolve.

Preparing for Efficient Genealogy Research

Having a few supplies set up and ready for you when you are ready to begin research will go a long ways to improving your overall research efficiency. 

As you will see from the list below, you do not need anything extravagant or unusual.  The simpler you keep things the better. 

Setting Up Your Workspace

For efficient genealogy research, have these simple supplies handy:

  • A Timer – The one on your cell phone is just fine.
  • A Legal pad  – I get mine here. I don’t even have to leave the house. 🙂
  • Pencils and/or pens – I personally use mechanical pencils.
  • A Designated place to research – A home office is wonderful if you have that option. If not, the kitchen table works just fine. Really, anywhere you can keep your supplies together and “ready to go” is a good place. 
  • Your Computer or Tablet – Obviously, you need internet access to explore those genealogy databases. I currently use an HP Envy 360 laptop and an Apple ipad.

You will need one more thing – it’s the MOST IMPORTANT –  to keep your genealogy research moving ahead when researching in 20 minute time increments…

The Most Important Thing You Need To Be An Efficient (and Successful!) Researcher

You need a PLAN.

Finding your ancestors in just 20 minutes of research a day requires intentionality on the part of the researcher. You must know what you are looking for and how you are going to accomplish that or you will find yourself going down research rabbit holes.  [And dinner will be late again!]

spiral notebook with silver fountain pen for research

I keep several research plans at the ready. When inspiration strikes or new databases become available, I am ready to research. Having several research plans always ready and available allows me to switch between research projects easily  and quickly.

S0…. what does having a plan look like? How does a researcher go about creating a genealogy research plan?

  • Decide what you want to know.  Break your larger research goals  of “trace the Smith family back to their country of origin”  down to more manageable goals of “Who were the parents of Tate Smith of Waverly County, TN?” Find a discussion of what makes a good genealogy goal HERE.
  • Plan where to look for the information. Do your homework up front. Research where the records you need are housed and what is available to you online. Obviously, offline records will fall outside of your 20 minute time increments and may well require an genealogy road trip.  That’s not always a bad thing!
  • Prep your research plan/log. You can use the one at the bottom of the post or create your own. It’s personal choice if you keep your research plan or log online or print it off as a hard copy. I find it nice to have a printed copy to avoid clicking back and forth as I research.  Also, when a thought strikes, I can quickly make a note without having to open everything back up.
  • Schedule your research on the calendar!  If you know you only have 20 minutes to research, block out that time on your calendar. You are more like to keep that research appointment with yourself and be in the genealogy frame of mind at the appointed time.  If possible, I recommend performing your research at the same time each day to consistently build your genealogy habit. 

Pro Genealogy Tip: Do not forgo making your research plan. Having a specific research goal and plan can make the difference between finding your ancestors or not. Professional genealogy researchers create a research plan every single time.

Black and white photo of 2 young women standing in front of a large 2 story house.

Now, Let’s Research Your Genealogy in 20 Minutes a Day!

You’ve got 20 minutes, your supplies and that all important research plan. Now you are ready to start finding your ancestors.

  • Set Your Timer and turn off distractions – Multitasking is not your friend and leads to mistakes in the research process. Tip: Plug your earbuds in.  For some reason, having my earbuds in, even with no music playing, facilitates my focus.  I’m not really sure why, but it works for me.  Having earbuds in also diminishes interruptions from others since they assume you are listening to something!
  • Begin your search – Start looking for those ancestors! Research is what you have been waiting for.
  • Make notes and analyze the information you find as you find it. In your genealogy research, you will inevitably not find your ancestor or your research lead will not pan out.  We call that “negative” results.  Do not neglect to make notes and/or document where your ancestors do not appear.  Negative research results can direct your next research steps.
  • Repeat the search/analyze portion as many times as necessary until you have found your answer or exhausted your search.
  • When your timer goes off, stop.  Make a note where you stopped and what you need to continue with the next session! Do not skip this step. You will find yourself wasting precious time trying to remember where you want to start the next time you sit down to research. 

Start again the next day……

Let’s talk about distractions and focus  for a moment.  Have you ever been researching and come across information on ancestors other than the one you are currently researching?  An hour later, you have completely forgotten who you were originally researching?

A yellow legal pad can solve this problem for you.  When you come across information on a different ancestral line or you have a random thought not pertaining to your current research project, simply make a note of what or who you found that you want to research further at a later date. Include the source information, so you can find  the record again when you need it.  Return to your original search confident that you have not lost that valuable spark of inspiration.

laptop and open notebook with pen on a table with a coffee mug beside it.

And if you go beyond your time limit (way beyond your time limit), well, cereal for dinner is not such a bad thing.

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