Focus On: Setting Goals

Think SMART and achieve your goals faster

Do you set yourself SMART genealogy goals? What exactly are SMART goals? Ever found yourself procrastinating or researching aimlessly and achieving little? Then this article is for you my friend!

Planning our genealogy research can have a huge impact upon our success rates. Setting goals is the first stage of this process, and perhaps the most important. Goals help us to prioritise our research, giving us focus. Something every genealogist needs! Setting SMART goals means we are really planning exactly what we want to achieve. But what is SMART? Well, SMART is an acronym for setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. But we’ll explain that in a bit…

Are you reading this and thinking: “I’m not convinced. I like working ‘free form’ and I find goals restrictive”. I hear you! I know how you feel. Setting too many goals and failing to review your targets can lead to exasperation and feeling restricted. But, without any goals we can become easily distracted and fail to reach our full potential. If you’ve never used SMART goals, then why not try something different this year?

Why you need SMART Goals

One of the biggest challenges faced by genealogists is to stay focused. We learn that looking at tangents can be very beneficial, leading to clues about our ancestors. For example, we might delve into FAN research, looking at the Friends, Acquaintances and Neighbours of our ancestors. We’ll track down marriage witnesses, delve into in-laws, track neighbours across census years. This is all “good” genealogy. But it makes staying ‘on track’ difficult. Sometimes we start looking at a neighbour and discover a really interesting story. Before we know it we’ve researched their family back to the 1500s. They really had extremely little to do with our own more elusive ancestors. Chances are we’ve not even noted down our findings. Sometime around 1800 we realised that this neighbour was not really leading to proper clues.

If you are not careful your searches can go off in a 100 different directions. You get caught in the moment, record nothing and ultimately achieving nothing. SMART goals will help with this!


Time is a precious commodity. Learning to stay focused whilst ensuring ‘clues’ aren’t ignored is a vital skill for any genealogist to learn. One way to achieve this is to set yourself clear, SMART genealogy goals.

Goals can be as large or as small as you’d like – depending on your time limits. However, it’s useful to break larger goals down into smaller goals. This way you can see regular progress towards your main outcome. You are less likely to become frustrated and therefore less likely to give up on your goal.

What Goals Should I Set?

No one can tell you exactly what your goals should include. However, it’s worth thinking about whether you want to:

  • Go further back in time
    • e.g. find the baptism/birth of an elusive ancestor, confirming his or her parents names
    • e.g. progress a surname as far back as possible
  • Find out more details about your ancestors
    • e.g. search for further details about their lives within detail rich sources, such as newspapers
    • e.g. investigate the history of the places your ancestors lived

Of course, you might want to set several goals, combing both of the above types. Setting several goals about one ancestor or family group effectively gives you a full set of research aims to plan out for the year.

Make Your Goals SMART to Create A Research Plan

Once you’ve set your goals, you can also break these down into individual tasks. First though, make sure your goals are SMART:



Who or what are you focusing on? This could be a time period, an occupation, a place etc. Try to make it as defined as possible, a particular person within a set time period or within a set place.



How will you know when you’ve met your goal? Are there particular records that need to be checked? Is there a set date range? For example, at the end of my research I know I’ll have looked for Great Grandfather Smith in the censuses from 1841 to 1911.



Think about your time constraints here. Will you really be able to make the necessary trips to the archives? Can you afford to hire a professional to do those trips for you? Is your goal too big? Should it be broken down into smaller goals, all working towards your “big” goal? What about your budget? Can you prioritise in a way that’ll fit with your financial limitations today?



Realistic is closely tied to achievable. Obviously if something is not realistic it’s not achievable. It’s also unrealistic to say that you’ll have looked for an ancestor in every record ever written. Or that looking at certain documents will guarantee a result. We all know how elusive some ancestors can be! How can you make your SMART goal realistic? For example, you might be able to state the name variants you’ll search for. You can list the records you’ll have checked (such as Birth Registrations as indexed by X, or Baptism Parish Records records for county X).



When do you want to achieve your goals by? Is this a long term goal (in which case you may want to break it down into mini goals)? If it’s a short term goal, is your deadline realistic and achievable? What do you need to do to ensure you complete on time? What time can you dedicate to this goal, each week or month?

Turn Those SMART Goals into Research Plans?

Once you’ve set your SMART goals, create a research plan. Start by breaking your goal(s) down into tasks. One way to do this is to ask yourself questions;

Task checklist
  • What searches will I need to perform? Where? In what records?
  • What archives will I need to visit? To review which sources?
  • Which archives might I need to engage a professional to visit? To review which sources?
  • What alternative sources can I use? Where? In what records?
  • Who might know the answer to X? When can I visit them?
  • How will I record my evidence? Do I need to purchase some family history software?
  • Can I utilise any of my existing research? How?
  • Should I create a timeline for this family or ancestor? How will I do this?

The answer to each of these questions will probably give you at least one or two tasks to add to your research plan. By working through your tasks, and recording your findings, you’ll be striving towards completing your goal. Not only that, you’ll have a written record of the steps you’ve taken in achieving your goal. Don’t forget to record the outcome of each of the tasks you undertake.

As you progress through your tasks, keep your end goals in mind. Once your tasks have been completed review your results in conjunction with your goal. Has it now been achieved? If not, why not? Do you need to add more tasks? Or was your goal too broad? Have you achieved part of the goal? Do you now need to break it down into further goals?

Setting goals and assigning tasks makes it much easier to accomplished focused research. It’s also much easier to log and record your findings. Hopefully these tips will help you to avoid repetitive searching and procrastination!

Get Some Accountability

Share your goals on social media, with a friend or a genealogy society. Sharing your goals helps to give you accountability. If we’ve publicly said we are going to do something, we are far more likely to do it!

If you’ve written your goals, please tweet me and let me know. I’d love to hear them.

I’ve written my #genealogy SMART goals and I’m ready to share them!

Further Reading

Looking for some challenges or goal inspiration?

Check out the Genealogy Do-Over Facebook Group. Start your research from scratch using your improved skills to ensure you really do have the right results!

The visual prompts suggested by the Genealogy Photo A Day Facebook Page might help you to create your own goals. Or perhaps you’ll decide to follow the challenge?

Want to blog about you ancestors? Than use Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks to help inspire you:

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