Fitting Genealogy Into Your Busy Life: Ten Tips To Maximize Your Research Time

by Lisa Alzo | Jul 31, 2012

Lisa Alzo

Genealogy is a time-consuming activity. We can get lost for hours in microfilm, online databases (1940 census, anyone?), and social media sites. For many of us "So many ancestors, so little time" has become a mantra. We all have busy lives--whether we work a full time job need to attend to our family obligations, or commit to volunteer work, or other social activities--digging up information on our ancestors sometimes has to take a back seat. This article will offer tips for maximizing your research time.

  1. Put it on your calendar. If you're busy, make appointments with yourself to tackle your genealogy research tasks. In general, when items are noted on a calendar they tend to get done. Scheduling time means you're making a commitment to concentrate on a particular line or family, and gives the task a priority place in your day. Whenever you can, try to block out larger chunks--like a day or half a day for a marathon sleuthing session. If you have a free Google Mail (Gmail) account, you can utilize Google calendar, as well as the ability to set up a customizable iGoogle homepage where you can add "gadgets" specific to genealogy. It's like having your own virtual research assistant. If you need additional reminders, and like to make to-do lists, try apps like Clear ($1.99 for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), or Remember the Milk (free and available on various platforms for Android, Apple, and you can use it with iGoogle).

  2. Have a plan. It's often very tempting to begin genealogical research by typing in a few names into the search boxes of an online database, hitting "Enter" and hoping for as many hits as possible. While this 21st-century "dartboard" approach can often net some quick results, it may not be your best bet for the long haul. Developing a research plan helps you record the "who, what, when, where and why" of your quest. Think of it as a roadmap--or in modern terms--a GPS that provides a navigational system to your past. For example, here is a basic research plan I designed to learn more about one of my great-grandmothers: Who: Ann Gazdik Figlar What: My grandfather was born in Osturna, Slovakia. The family story is that his father died when he was a young boy and his mother remarried and moved to another village (Podolinec). I want to find out when she died, learn the date and circumstances of her second marriage, including the first and last names of her second husband. When: ~ 1900 - 1921 Where: Osturna, Hungary (formerly Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia) and Podolinec (formerly Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia) Why: Her first husband died and she remarried when my grandfather was a young boy. I would like to learn his first and last name, when and where they married; why they moved to Podolinec and when, where, and how she died.

  3. Set time limits. How many times have you've been hot on the trail of an ancestor, scrolling through microfilm at the Family History Library, your FamilySearch Center or library, and when your stomach starts making peculiar noises you realize you never stopped to have lunch or dinner? Or perhaps you dive deep into a database search or get lost in a sea of websites, and the next time you glance at the clock, you notice that it's 3:00 a.m.? This may not be a problem if you can sleep in that day, or suffer from insomnia. However, if the reason you're up late is because you often get distracted by search fields and links, then you may need to set some time limits--perhaps sessions of a designated duration: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or 60 minutes. Set a timer or use the alarm on your smartphone. Then, aim for quality not quantity with your searches.

  4. Search while you sleep. Do you wish you could do genealogy 24 hours a day? Well, guess what? You actually can! With today's technology there are a number of ways to make the Web work for you--even while you sleep. One way is to set up GoogleAlerts--the are mailed updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your queries. You can set up Google Alerts for your surnames, hometowns or ancestral villages, and other key genealogy terms. If you're an member, you can set up "Member Alerts" to have Archives start searching for your ancestors in their databases and alert you and offer instructions about how you can access the records. Do you use eBay to search for possible lost family bibles, documents, or heirlooms, or historical photographs or other memorabilia? You can save your searches and have eBay notify you by e-mail about new items matching those saved searches. If you create an online family tree or purchase a DNA test, you can typically arrange to be contacted via e-mail about potential matches.

  5. Limit distractions. In a 24/7-connected world, distractions are commonplace. We're bombarded with text messages, e-mails, and phone calls, can spend hours on social media, playing games, or watching television. It's also amazing how quickly and predictably we can become unproductive and how easily we can get sucked into wasting precious time on something other than the task we set out to accomplish. When you want to do some serious sleuthing, turn off your ringers and alerts, and avoid opening that social media site. Try to identify those common culprits that steer you off course, set boundaries and take the necessary steps to enforce them. Then, only after you've completed your designated tasks, "reward" yourself with playing your favorite online game, or with checking e-mail or social media.

  6. Read the Directions! Just as you probably wouldn't prepare a souffl´┐Ż without a recipe, or attempt a complex home improvement project without instructions, you should apply this same approach to searching indexes or databases. Learn what a database has and how to search it. You can often find a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), or Help section, or a list of search tips for most of the major online databases available. For example, when searching, use the FAQ link at the bottom of the main page, and don't forget to also read their Blog! Knowing what you're looking for and what a record group or database contains--and even more so what it doesn't--can often save you many hours and prevent the frustration of fruitless searches.

  7. Keep a research log. If your research routine is more of the stop-and-start kind, it's important to remember where you left off, what records you've located. A research log can help with this aspect. A research log or calendar is a worksheet you use to record the facts about your genealogy searches and sources. It might sound like just another task to do or "busy work,", but it will save you time in the long run: You'll have a record of everything you did so you won't repeat steps, you'll easily be able to see which library or Web site held a particular document, and you can avoid aimless searching by having a strategy in place. Keep a separate log for each family or ancestor you're searching and write the name(s) at the top of the form. Other items to include:
    • Search Date: The date you did this search
    • Where Available: Web site URL or repository name
    • Call #: The call number of a book or film number of a roll of microfilm
    • Title/Author/Publisher/Year or Record Identification Information (this helps you track down the source again, if you need to). If online: database title. If microfilm, write the title of the roll and the court file number and date.
    • Page #s: If you found your information in a book or ledger (in print or on microfilm), write the page number.
    • Notes: Note the results of your search here--what did you find, and was it what you were looking for?

    To save even more time, you can also use your research log as a to-do list: As you learn about resources that might be useful, write the title and location on your calendar. Then, when you check the source, record the results on your calendar. You can learn more about keeping a research log and other essential forms from the article: " Get Organized: Basic Forms for Beginning Genealogists."

  8. Utilize the cloud. Being able to access your family tree files, your research logs, documents, etc. anywhere, anytime gives you a huge advantage. Site such as Dropbox, SugarSync, Microsoft SkyDrive, and Google's new Drive service offer a certain amount of free storage space (usually 5GB to start) for documents and other files, and the ability to sync multiple devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) across various platforms. Cloud storage puts your family history at your fingertips. The less time you waste trying to locate your files, or transferring data between multiple devices, the more time you'll have for research!

  9. Share successes and failures. Rather than waste time continuing to ponder those pesky brickwall problems, consider sharing your research with others. Post your tree online (you can do this for free at, write a Blog (commonly known in the genealogy community as "cousin bait") and use social media to ask questions or pose a perplexing research problem. Remember, your successes could help solve someone else's roadblock, and your failures could be similar to brickwalls another researcher has experienced or busted through. You can spend a lot of time agonizing over what you don't know when the answer could potentially be one post away!

  10. Hire a professional. If you're facing difficult or complicated research tasks, such as needing to obtain records from another state, or a a foreign archive or repository, or having to translate birth, marriage or death records written in an unfamiliar language, it may save you time to hire a professional who is geographically based in the area where you're researching and/or knows the language and procedures. While it's typically both beneficial and fun to perform our own research or visit our ancestral homeland, when you factor in costs for travel, lodging, food, parking, and incidentals, it may be more economical to pay for specialized research services. Your research is still getting done, but more efficiently and effectively.


There may always be something else you have to do besides building a family tree. Digging into the past requires time and patience, and you can't always control those circumstances that take you away from your research on a daily basis. However, even making just a few small adjustments to when and how you research can help you squeeze in a little more time for your ancestors.

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