How To Utilise SMART Goals To Trace Your Family Tree

This article explores why and how you should set goals for tracing your family tree. I’ll explain SMART goals and show you how using this goal setting technique will ensure you stay focused on your family history research.


In A Rush? Watch the highlights on video.

Why Do You Need To Set Family Tree Goals?

One of the problems you’ll soon encounter when tracing your family tree is real difficulty in resisting distractions. You might start looking for your Great-Grandfather’s war records, only to find that 2 hours later your knee deep in the 1939 National Register looking at your 2nd Cousin Twice Removed’s wife’s Uncle. He was in the RAF in WWI, you stumbled across him and before you knew it you’d started researching his entire life story.

Don’t get me wrong, this “rabbit hole” research is part of the fun. But, if you keep getting distracted by BSO (Bright Shiny Objects) you’ll soon find the fun turns to frustration.

You’ll look back at your research 3 months from now and think:

why haven’t I found this person

why is this so hard

So how can you avoid the distractions and stay focused? Well, you need to set yourself goals.

Goals help us to prioritise our research, a clear target makes it easier to avoid those rabbit holes.

Why Are Ordinary Goals Not Enough?

Whilst tracing your family tree, it’s often necessary to “go off on tangents”. In order to track down an elusive ancestor, you might need to look at their Friends, Associates and Neighbours (FAN). For example, spending time tracking down marriage witnesses or delving into the whereabouts of their in-laws.

Usually you might set a goal such as, “I want to find my Great Grandfather”. But such a broad goal is easily forgotten as you get stuck into the complexities of research. For example, you find your Great-Grandfather’s marriage record and his birth but he disappears after the birth of his son, your Grandad.

In this example, is your goal complete? Probably not. Did you carry on looking for your Great-Grandfather or did you get distracted by your Great-Grandmother’s family? Or even your Great-Grandfather’s parents?

Such a loosely defined goal, “I want to find my Great-Grandfather”, really isn’t enough! What does “find” even mean?

Your goals can be as large or as small as you like, but they must be highly targeted. You must be able to know what achievement looks like. This often means it’s best to break big goals down into several smaller goals. This way you’ll feel like you are gradually chipping away at that ultimate target. You’ll be able to regularly measure your progress as you strive to reach your ultimate outcome.

What Family Tree Goals Should I Set?

Goal setting is highly personal and there are no wrong or right answers. However it’s worth thinking about what you value the most. Is it:


  • Finding out details about your ancestors
    • e.g. finding out stories about your ancestor in detail rich records such as newspapers
    • e.g. discovering social historical context, such as the economic make up of the road on which they lived
  • Progressing your family tree further back in time
    • e.g. finding out the names and key dates for your direct ancestors
    • e.g. investigating the origin of a surname
  • Exploring DNA
    • e.g. identifying your relationship to matches
    • e.g. building a chromosome map in a tool like DNA Painter
  • Learning a new skill
    • e.g. taking a course
    • e.g. applying a technique you’ve read about to your own research

Of course, you might want to set several goals combing all of the different types and examples set out above. In fact, setting at least 2 goals is a good idea. Often with genealogy you have to wait for answers. That might be awaiting a certificate delivery or a reply from a DNA match. Having goals to switch between gives you focus during the “down time”.

How Do I Set SMART Family Tree Goals?

Now you have an idea of your goals, you need to move them from “ordinary” to SMART.

SMART, stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. Let’s explore this in detail.

S is for Specific

Dart being thrown to hit a target
A specific goal means aiming for a precise target.

Your goals need to be highly specific or targeted. Exactly who or what are you focusing on? How can you define this to make it as particular as possible? This could mean, for example, stating the person you are seeking to explore within a set time period or place.

M is for Measurable

A measurable goal means you know what achievement looks like

You need to able to define exactly what achievement looks like. How will you know when you’ve finished your goal? This could mean defining the records that need to be checked.

A is for Achievable

You should feel like celebrating accomplishing your goals

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? Ultimately your goal has to be achievable but challenging enough to give you a sense of satisfaction upon completion.

R is for Realistic

Be Realistic
What's realistic for you is highly personal

Realistic and achievable go hand in hand. Obviously it’s not realistic to aim to look for an ancestor in every record held at your local archives. Conversely though, you can define exactly which records it’s realistic to search. Which records are realistically most likely to yield results? Realistically, can you make a list of name variants and check the same record for each one?

T is for Timely

Working, at home with kids or retired: we all have time constraints

A goal without a deadline is  wish list. 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?

How To Take Family Tree Goals Further

Once you’ve set yourself some SMART goals you are well on your way towards creating a research plan.

Using a research plan will help ensure that your goals really are SMART. The two go hand in hand. A plan means your goals are timely and measured.

So, the first step is to break those family tree SMART goals down into tasks.

You can do this by asking yourself questions:

  • 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 answers to each of these questions should give you at least one or two tasks to add to your research plan.

By working through your tasks and recording your findings (including outcomes), you’ll be striving towards completing your family tree goals. Even better, you’ll also have a written record of the steps you’ve taken in order to achieve your goal. You might even have a repeatable search process that can be used for tackling the tracing of other tricky ancestors. Now, try saying that last sentence quickly!

As you progress through your tasks, make sure you keep that final SMART goal in mind. Sometimes your research findings will mean that you’ll need to revisit that goal. Is it still SMART? Are it’s associated tasks still relevant?

How To Keep Yourself Accountable

Despite our best intentions sometimes our determination drifts. Our goals get forgotten or we loose momentum.

A great way to avoid the above and to stay focused on your goals is to find yourself an accountability buddy.

Simply telling someone else what we are going to do makes us more likely to actually do it. No one wants to have to admit that they didn’t do the thing they promised to do!

Your accountability buddy could be a member of your local family history society. Or a family member, eager to read your discoveries. 

If you’ve written your SMART goals then please feel free to send them to me. I’ll email you reguarly to ask how you are getting on and to give you a kick up the backside if you need it!!!!

Alternatively, you could use the fantastic genealogy community on Twitter to help you stay focused. Don’t forget to tag me (@geneastories) into your tweet, so that I can see your amazing SMART goals.

Further Reading

Looking for some challenges or goal inspiration, then check these out:

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