It's very easy to start researching one line of thought, become interested in another, and change direction, all in a matter of a few minutes. Soon you're surrounded with papers, documents, names, dates and locations and are left with a head full of swirling questions.
You will find your research more productive if you clearly identify your research goals, develop a research plan and focus on their completion. The following are a few ideas for keeping your research on track and manageable.
1. Focus on specific sections of your genealogy at a time. This can be:
A specific family line or surname
A specific time and place
A specific family unit
A specific question to solve
2. Once you have focused on a specific area to research, create a log to help you develop a big picture of what you have and where you want to go. Keep the log up-to-date — it will save you time and energy. Note when and where you viewed the information. The log can include, but is not limited to, the following:
Who you have talked to and information provided
Information you have found and citations
The questions you still seek answers to
Thoughts of where to research
The answers you have found
Ideas and assumptions you are making and why
3. Keep a to-do list — a plan as to what research you seek to perform. Organize the plan so the most important research gets done first. Often you find that when you focus on top-priority research, many other items on your list are completed also.
4. Group your to-do items by the source you will use to conduct research.
5. Create a "future research" file. As you are conducting your focused research, you will always come up with ideas for research you want to conduct that is outside the focus of your current line of inquiry. Record it — whether it's an idea, a paragraph, a printed document, a photocopy or whatever else — put it in the file and forget about it until you are done with the task at hand. You can then go through the file at a later date, organize your notes and start the next task. Don't be surprised if you begin doubling your accomplishments.
6. Keep track of your progress.
7. Reach out for help as you need it.
8. If you have a hard time finding time or are spending too much time doing research, schedule time with yourself to conduct your research. Make your appointments start and end on time. There is something about a deadline that helps keep you on track.
9. See the big picture. While focused research will help keep your genealogy work organized and streamlined, it's important not to get so focused on finding a single individual or piece of information that we don't look at extended family, neighbors and the migration patterns of the entire community. Often the missing person (or piece of information) will pop up in someone else's family in a completely different geographic location.
Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. There are many instances where researchers come to a dead end on an individual and, through researching related people (siblings, aunts, uncles, and so on), are led back to the individual of interest. Think outside the box. If you're stuck, find unusual ideas and places to look for information.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.