Nine Ways to Make Family History a Habit

Posted by on

Are you into family history for the fun of it? Okay, I agree, we need a stronger word than fun. May I try that again?

Are you into family history for the joy of it?

That’s reason enough, but there are other possibilities. You may feel a duty to your ancestors, to help them live on in their descendants’ memories. You may feel a sense of obligation to your posterity, to help them understand who they are and whence they came. For some, it’s a religious duty. Or perhaps you’re driven by a more personal desire, to figure out who you are and whence you came. All of these are perfectly good motives.

I don’t claim that you even need a motive, or that you should report it to me or anyone else. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that you have some discernible reason for engaging in family history.

Let’s also assume that your own involvement is important to you, not just your work product. If only the result matters — if family history to you is like cleaning the oven, replacing the broken sewer line, or having your gall bladder removed — you might hire a professional genealogist and let him or her worry about it. That’s fine; professional genealogists have to eat, too. But this post is for people who want to be involved, not just have the work done.

I’m a fairly busy guy, with family, professional, civic, and religious activities and obligations. But there are a few slices of time in my schedule which I might use to pursue family history. (My family history, that is; in a sense my professional activities focus on your family history.) This only works if the necessary materials are ready at hand when those time slices occur, and if I think to use them productively, rather than watching television or surfing the Web.

My Projects This Year

I have four family history-related projects to advance this year. I’ll use them as my examples. They are:

  • Building my family tree somewhere online, where it’s accessible to other members of my immediate and extended family. Given where you’re reading this, you’ll understand why I’ll be using the excellent tree at
  • An indexing project which welcomes my participation, whether I index one name per week or a hundred names per day.
  • A biography I’ve been researching and now want to start writing. Technically, this is someone else’s family history, not my own, but that doesn’t change the nature of the work, and it’s a useful example.
  • Helping a cousin organize the annual reunion of my mother’s family — which I’ve done before, but she hasn’t.

So how will I stick to these enough this year to accomplish something, despite my busy schedule? Thanks for asking. I don’t claim to know all the answers, but here are eight things that might work for me and one that probably won’t.

John Whitaker

I sent Julie, our designer, some images from that biography I'm writing and asked her which she liked best. She sent back a collage. Clockwise from top left: John Whitaker in Afghanistan; a news article from the time he was kidnapped at age 18; his graduation photo from US Army jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia; in front of a bunker in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam, and two school pictures.

1. Daily Electronic Reminders

Lately, I use an iPhone app called Orchestra to keep my to-do list. Last summer I added a task which recurs daily: “Index at least one name.” It worked. I indexed 1242 names last year, because indexing a name is like eating a potato chip: It’s hard to stop at just one. My goal this year is 2500 names, or an average of just under seven names per day, so the new recurring task reads, “Index at least seven names.” The app sends me a reminder e-mail every day and also tells me how long it has been since I completed that task, which facilitates catching up. (I am nothing if not human. I fall behind sometimes.)

2. Have a Regular Time and Place to Work, and a Designated Place for Materials

I have a drawer in my desk dedicated to my materials for the biography I mentioned. I’m protecting part of every Sunday afternoon for the project — which may include turning off my phone, too. But there’s an added difficulty: If my desk isn’t clean — at least usable — I don’t tend to sit at it. I sit in my unconscionably comfortable reading chair instead and fall asleep, and nothing gets done. So in this case I have to have a regular time and place and an orderly desk. For more conventional family history work a briefcase (such as my father uses), a binder (such as I used to use), a room (if you can get one of your children to move out), or a laptop (properly backed up, of course) might be just the right place to keep everything.

3. Keep a Task List for the Project

This has at least three advantages. First, I’m less likely to forget things which need to be done. If I think of something to do later in the project, I simply write it down and get back to what I’m doing. Second, it’s easier to keep working when I complete one task, if the next is already on my list, ready and waiting. Third, if I get stuck on one task, there are probably several others on the list which don’t depend on that one, so I can still be productive.

To my delight, I discovered that automatically offers me a list of things I could add to my family tree there. Its automated sense of priorities is close to mine, so I probably won’t keep my own list for that project, at least not at first. Right now, for example, with my tree just beginning, it’s prompting me to enter birth dates for two of my brothers, who died as infants, and for myself (pardon the backhanded Mark Twain reference . . .), who did not.

For the family reunion, which is my fourth example, I’m hoping my task list from last year will be useful to my cousin, who is in charge this year.

4. Have a Front Burner and a Back Burner

If I’m stuck, bored, or losing momentum, I can shift what I’m doing to the back burner and promote another back-burner task to the front burner for a while. This makes the work more interesting, increases my energy and enthusiasm, and builds momentum.

5. Keep a Research Log, Notebook, or Diary

Where did I find that record again? What was I trying to find in that database last week? Where can I write down this good idea for future reference? Is that really how it was spelled? Some sort of a notebook can be the key to all of these questions. There are many different ways to keep it, electronically and otherwise. The way I prefer depends on the project.

6. Use Social Media

Assuming you have some friends on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter, you can find some encouragement there, and perhaps even some help. If others friends are working on the same lines, you may be able to collaborate via social media. In any case, reporting your goals and progress to others tends to help you keep making progress. And if it’s a reunion you’re planning, a little Facebooking goes a long way. Make a group and an event, and start inviting people.

7. Remember the Value of Baby Steps

(Did you notice that we’ve moved from Mark Twain to Bill Murray?) Small things, persisted in, add up to great things. Even a little progress every day or every week quickly adds up to something meaningful. If half an hour every Saturday morning is all the time you have for a family history project, enjoy working at it half an hour every Saturday morning, and don’t feel guilty for not doing more or progressing more quickly.

8. Reward Yourself

This doesn’t work very well for me, for some reason, but a lot of folks recommend it. Plan to celebrate with a Key Lime pie when you’ve entered that 50th name in your family tree, or take yourself to a movie to celebrate finishing that chapter of the history. Or watch What About Bob? (see #7 above) to learn all about “baby steps.” Or reward yourself by reading Mark Twain’s brief story “An Encounter with an Interviewer” (see #3 above).

Reward yourself or not. It’s up to you. I enjoy the work enough to see it as its own reward, and somehow there’s already very nearly enough Key Lime pie in my diet. On second thought, maybe a reward would work for me if the Key Lime pie were at that beachfront place on Key Largo . . .

Key Largo by day

There's great Key Lime pie a stone's throw from the beach where I took this picture on Key Largo.

9. Make a Habit of Reading Something not Directly Related to Your Work (but still in the same subject area)

I’ve lately been reading US colonial history, which intersects with my genealogy at a couple of points, but is mostly just interesting to me on general principle. Yes, it’s engaging enough to keep me awake even in the aforementioned “unconscionably comfortable reading chair.” Most of the time.

It’s About Momentum

You may have noticed that at least seven of my nine suggestions relate directly to preserving momentum. I can’t speak for others, but that’s a big deal for me, if I want to keep at a task at regular intervals over an extended period of time.

Speaking of momentum, having now told you about my family history projects for the year, I’m eager to finish this blog post and get back to one of them. Baby steps to my home office, baby steps to my desk drawer . . .

Good luck with your own projects!

Key Largo evening

Same bird, by evening. I'm thinking this reward thing might work after all.

4 Responses to “Nine Ways to Make Family History a Habit”

  1. S.G.Wildblood Stubbs says:

    1. I like the idea of a task list. sounds like it would keep me focussed onwhats at hand not necessarily on what’s on screen if I startgetting distracted.

    2. As a music teacher I KNOW that if you do the same thing [i.e. piano practice] at the same time every day, it is much more likely to get done. Maybe choose 30 a night when there’s nothing on t.v.?
    Thanksfor the ideas.

  2. kathleen jackson nee bethell says:

    I have been trying to find the Bethell family tree, from my father, 1908 to1996 and his father also James Bethell died 1956
    aged 72, his mother was Charlotte Bethell died around 1942 age about 86.

  3. Diane Moloney says:

    Thanks for this very organized way to complete tasks in family research and history. As I have been dithering for a few years now with info everywhere and nothing organized, implementing your strategy should see great progress in this area.
    Thanks again.

  4. Cindy Coffell says:

    I don’t usually have a problem with focusing on my family history research but enjoyed reading your article. However, your John Whitaker collage took me down memory lane. My father spent most of his Vietnam tour at Tay Ninh.

Leave a comment