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Focus On: Setting Goals

Think SMART and achieve your goals faster

It’s easy, when researching your family tree, to get distracted and go off on tangents. You might be in the middle of researching your 4x Great Grandfather and come across a record for his brother. Before you know it you’ve spent the last hour tracing the history of your 4x Great Uncle’s wife and her rather interesting family.

Your searches have gone off in a 100 different directions. You’ve recorded nothing and you don’t really feel you’ve achieved much.


That’s fine, but time is a precious commodity for most of us. So how do you stay focused?

One way to do this is to set yourself clear genealogy goals. This could 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 small goals. This way you can see your progress towards your main outcome. Your less likely to get frustrated, and can clearly see your progress.

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


SpecificWho 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.


MeasurableHow 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.


AchievableThink about your time constraints here too. Is your goal to 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?


RealisticIt’s unrealistic to say you’ll have looked for an ancestor in every record ever written. Although you might be able to state you’ve checked all Birth Registrations and Baptism records for counties X and X.


Time When do you want to achieve this 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?

Task checklist

Once you’ve set yourself your SMART goal, create a research log (see Focus On: Research Logs – coming soon). Next, start breaking your goal down into tasks. One way to do this is to ask yourself questions;

What searches will I need to perform? Where? In what records?

What alternative sources can I use? Where? In what records?

Who might know the answer to X?

How will I record my evidence?

Can I utilise any of my existing research?

The answer to each of these questions will probably give you at least one or two tasks to add to your research log. 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!


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