What should I work on today?

I try to work on family history research at least once a week. (Writing a post on this blog twice a week has helped motivate me!)  I appreciate that I have the time to work on it that frequently, but I’ve discovered that sometimes it seems not quite frequent enough to keep my momentum going. By the time another week rolls around, I can’t quite remember where I left off and I don’t know what I should work on.

I know from my experience as a professional organizer that not knowing where to start can be paralyzing. I see this in my clients who are dealing with a lot of clutter: they can’t figure out where to start, so they don’t start at all.

This happened to me last Saturday. When I sat down to work on genealogy research, I couldn’t think of where to start. Of course, the truth is that I can start literally anywhere on my family tree. There’s always something to work on. I’m working my way up my tree and sometimes when I make a link to a new generation, I’ll skip ahead to work on finding information about those folks, even when there’s still plenty of information to seek on a generation closer to me in time.

So I could play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey when it comes to my family tree and pick any relative and start looking for more information on them. But I’m not keen on such a random approach (though that might be fun to try some day).

As it turned out, last weekend, I remembered that I’d found military information on an ancestor in a family history I’d downloaded, which led to some fun exploration.

At one point, when I first got back into this research, I kept a hand written research journal, which I filled out at the end of each research session and one of the items I would enter is next steps. Somehow, that has fallen by the wayside, but it would be a good habit to get back into.

Here are some ways I can think of to make sure that I don’t get paralyzed or delayed by the “what should I work on” question:

  • Keep a running list of questions to research. When I come across something I want to look into further (but don’t have time to research at that moment), I can add it to the list
  • Keep a “next steps” journal that I add to at the end of each research session
  • Start an electronic checklist for each ancestor of items to research, so I can tell at a glance what information is still up for grabs
  • Pick an ancestor at random and start exploring
  • On the other end of the spectrum, I could set up a very systematic approach and work through a single surname before I move to another

My personality is such that a systematic approach would feel constricting. I think keeping a list of things to work on and selecting the puzzle that jumps out at me that day is probably what’s going to work for me.

The key here, I think, is to know that there’s no wrong answer to the question, “What should I work on now?” That’s the beauty of this research. As long as I’m documenting what I find so that I don’t end up spending loads of times on false leads, any research I do is productive.

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