Promises to Your Ancestors: Making (and Keeping) Your Genealogy Goals

We’re only a few days into the year: chances are that you have already given up on that New Year’s resolution you made last week. If so, then you’re in good company: a 2018 YouGov poll of the UK population suggested that less than a quarter of people who make resolutions actually keep them. But there are some secrets to creating fantastic goals and seeing them become reality. So if you’re making a genealogy-related promise to yourself for 2021, let’s see how you can maximise your chances of success using my five-step plan…

Dartboard with three darts in it, all of which have just missed the bullseye
On target? Whether you’re playing darts or aiming for a goal in your research, there exist several key steps integral to successfully hitting the mark.

Despite the frequent emphasis upon New Year’s resolutions, goal setting shouldn’t be reserved for January alone. I must confess to never having made a New Year’s resolution: goal setting is for any time it’s useful!

Set goals at the right point for you, when you have sufficient time both to make your goal and to plan how to use it effectively. But before we think about setting goals, let’s consider what they actually are and why we might want them in the first place.

What is a Goal & Why Have One?

Turning to the wisdom of the Oxford English Dictionary, a goal is an aim or desired result; the destination of a journey. And yes, a journey is an incredibly useful way to think about this, because research goals are there to give our family history investigations purpose and direction.

OED definition of the word goal: an aim or desired result, the destination of a journey
If you’re making a goal, then you also need to plan a journey. Definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. Photo by Sophie Kay.

You wouldn’t book a holiday without thinking about how you’re going to get to your hotel. As for any successful journey, a decent goal needs a travel plan. This means considering the specifics of how you’re going to get from A (where you are now in your research) to B (where you want to be). Keep that holiday analogy in mind, because it’s a useful one.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of using research questions to guide your genealogy work (available as Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3); the processes of goal setting and question forming have a lot in common, so you might find it helpful to revisit those posts. Your goal should act a as a guiding light to shape your question-asking process.

Major Causes of Goal Failure

It’s easy to start out towards our goal in a rush of optimism, only to find things quickly going awry. One of the biggest difficulties people encounter is that their goal remains a vague idea, without any sense of what needs to happen in order to achieve it. Once you make your goal a specific, concrete one and create a structured path to follow, you gain both purpose and direction, with a guided plan for how to get there.

So worry not! I’ve put together a five-step plan below to help you through. Task boxes in mustard-yellow are scattered throughout the rest of this post. Each of them includes a suggested activity to help you keep to your genealogy goals and transform your productivity!

Five steps to achievement: form your goal, pursue your goal, hold yourself to account, be flexible, reward yourself.
My five steps to genealogy achievement. Commit yourself not only to making a goal, but following through on it and rewarding your successes. Your research will flourish.

Can you see now why so many people fail to see their dreams come to fruition? Forming our goal is the bit we tend to focus on. Sure enough, it’s an important step, but many of us invest all our energy there and never get on to the other four stages. You need all five stages for success.

Five Stages for Goal-Getting Success

1. Form Your Goal

At the goal forming stage, assess the current state of your family tree and decide what matters most to you in your genealogy research. Would you prefer to go further back in time, or deepen your knowledge of the people in your tree? When I ran a brief poll on the subject during Twitter’s AncestryHour last month (albeit with a small sample size of 47!), enriching existing research and writing it up were the dominant aims for many.

Twitter poll asking what your genealogy goals are for 2021. 42.6% chose either enriching existing work or writing up research. 8.5% wanted to take their research further back in time and 6.4% wanted to develop their technique.
When I ran a poll for an hour during Ancestry Hour in December 2020, most genealogists were keen to deepen their existing knowledge of their ancestors and write up the findings.

You need to move from this general idea to thinking about the specific details of your goal. Vague intentions rarely see good results. It might be most important to you to take your ATWELL line back to the 17th century, or it might matter more to you that you locate the will of your ancestor James BLACKWELL in 1823 and do in-depth research on his family network.

When choosing a goal, make it Relevant, Achievable, and Resourced. Aspects to consider include:

  • Taking stock of the current state of your family history research (Relevant): If you don’t know where you are now, how can you navigate to somewhere new? (If you’re going on holiday, you need to know your current location as well as the destination in order to book transport)
  • Judging how far away your goal is (Achievable): Be honest about how much work it’s likely to take to meet your aims. Unrealistic goals are likely to fail. (How can you plan for a journey with snacks, money and appropriate clothing if you don’t know how long it’s going to take?)
  • Identifying necessary tools or resources (Resourced): Having the proper tools to hand will be instrumental in your success. (Hiking across the country in flip-flops rather than sturdy walking boots wouldn’t be a fun experience and you’d probably give up a short way into your trip)

Some people use the SMART goal framing (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) to guide their research – if you like this idea, then check out blogposts from Natalie Pithers and Amy Johnson Crow.

Compass pointing to SSW
Rather like a compass, goals give us direction. Image by Natalio via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

To keep things simple for now, we’ll think about setting and following a single goal. Later on we’ll take a look at two other approaches: sequential goals, where you set yourself a number of challenges which get progressively harder; and sector goals, where you have several aims running in parallel to drive both your research and your skills forward across the board.

TASK: Examine each branch of your family tree and identify where the gaps are. If you want to get really hands-on, then record clustering analysis or a negative space approach may help pinpoint areas for development. Do you want to go further back in time, or improve your knowledge of currently known individuals? When choosing your goal, be specific and also assess whether it is realistic based on the time you have and the complexity of what you’re trying to achieve.

2. Pursue Your Goal

By this stage, you should have a specific, attainable goal which is relevant to the current state of your research. Yet wanting something and committing to it are two different things. The next, crucial step is so often forgotten: you have to USE your goal and MONITOR your progress in order for it to work! Goals only come to life when you take action.

Your goal might not be a complicated one, but the simple act of writing it down helps you to visualise it and commit to achieving it.

TASK: Write down your goal now. This can be on the computer, a phone or in a journal. Writing down your goal represents the first stage of committing yourself to action.

Parliamentary register from the time of Elizabeth I of England
To meet your genealogy goals, you might need to acquire or sharpen particular skills. For example, if you find old handwriting difficult to read, then seeking out palaeography tutorials may form part of your goal-pursuing process. Photo by Sophie Kay, 2017.

Earlier we talked about having well-resourced goals. Useful resources are the food your research needs to thrive: this includes any learning, tools or support you need to move forward. Here are some ideas:

TASK: Revisit your goal. What skills or resources do you anticipate needing in order to succeed? Write these down too. If you can, set aside a small amount of time each week or each month to learn these new techniques, explore novel resources or talk to fellow genealogists who can help you. Family history societies and online communities such as Twitter’s Ancestry Hour can be of great support here.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable

Stages 1 and 2 saw us initiate our goal and plot a course to achieving it: but reaching that end point takes sustained effort, so you need a light framework in place to monitor your progress. This shouldn’t ever be a big or burdensome task (nobody wants that – let’s preserve the fun here).

If you’re technologically minded, consider setting a reminder on your computer’s calendar or on your phone every three months or so. Alternatively, a written prompt in your diary will do just as well. When these reminders come up, spend a small amount of time (just a few minutes is all that’s needed) reviewing your progress. Identify what aspects of your work have gone well, any which have gone badly, and work out how your approach might need to change if you’re to push on further.

Black and white photo of three women seated, holding books and writing implements and engaged in discussion with one another.
If solo genealogy makes you less likely to stick to your original aims, then try connecting with your fellow genealogists and hold one another to account.

If we’re to be effective in holding ourselves to account, we also need to be honest about what motivates us. This is different for everyone, so which of the following work for you?

COMPANIONSHIP Some people don’t thrive on a self-motivated working model. If you prefer having someone else to check in on how you’re doing, then partner up with a genealogy friend, discuss your goals and agree to keep each other motivated on the journey.

PERSONAL REWARD Decide on a specific treat for yourself, one which you can only have on reaching your goal.

ACHIEVEMENT If you’re very comfortable with the self-motivated approach, perhaps the end goal in itself is enough to keep you on track. If you’re in this group then you’re probably fortunate not to need any additional nudges to fulfil your aims. Keep going!

FAMILY If you’s hate to let your family down and you have relatives interested in the work you’re doing, then share your plans and commit to uncovering ancestral stories for them. Family history is our collective heritage and the prospect of bringing joy to our family can be a powerful force in driving us forward.

GOING PUBLIC Find it awkward to admit errant research behaviour? Perform better when there’s an audience expecting to hear from you? Going public with your goals may spur you on to put in the research time. Share your goals over social media or on a blog, and keep us all updated on your progress! Public sharing also has the advantage of connecting you with other researchers who can offer useful advice. Take inspiration from successful bloggers such as Paul Chiddicks of the Chiddicks Family Tree blog and Linda Stufflebean of Empty Branches on the Family Tree.

TASK: Sit for a few minutes now and think about what motivates you. Whether there’s one particular item in the above list which works for you, more than one, or something else altogether, identify it and write it down now. This will become the “carrot” to encourage you towards success.

4. Be Flexible

Goals guide you and help to shape your research path, but shouldn’t override further decision making if your research has evolved to the point where your original goal has become a hindrance, or appears to be impossible to meet. Even an experienced researcher may unexpectedly encounter an insoluble problem, and that’s OK. The targets we set are allowed to be flexible and evolve with our research once we know more about our research problem. Your periodic review sessions are usually the time to modify your goal if need be.

Two acrobats, one standing and supporting the entire weight of the other in the air, who is bending her legs backwards whilst resting her hands on the standing woman's knees.
Don’t be too rigid in your approach! Some degree of flexibility is allowed if we have information that suggests our goal needs to evolve. Photo by Sam Hood, from the collections of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

If we approach our goals in the right way, then they will enrich our work and our skillset whatever the outcome. When things go wrong, try to focus on what the process HAS achieved. Have some honest reflection on why things haven’t worked out, and carry these lessons forward. Was your original goal too ambitious? Were you not dedicated enough at pursuing your aims? Or perhaps you needed more time to learn the right skills? Acknowledging why your goal didn’t work out and using that knowledge next time puts you in a really powerful position for the future.

TASK: Watch this video of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, entitled, “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” It’s a masterclass in setting goals and responding to them when things don’t work out as initially planned. (It’s a long watch, coming in at one and a quarter hours, but my goodness you’ll be glad you saw it!)

As with life, research doesn’t come with an manual to tell us what to do. Our goals can only ever serve as a best guess for what we want to achieve. Learning from our missed goals is part of the journey: so embrace it.

TASK: During your periodic review sessions, think about whether the new information you’ve found in your research so far means that your goal needs to be modified or rescaled.

5. Reward Yourself

For many of us, the exciting stories we uncover as we expand our family tree are the reward for attaining our goals. But it’s also good to celebrate your successes.

Particularly if you find it a challenge to form and stick to new habits, or to avoid wandering off-course in your research, then be sure to treat yourself when you succeed. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate – it could just be giving yourself an afternoon off to walk out in your local park, buying that new book you’ve had your eye on…or something genealogy related – perhaps allowing yourself the luxury of sending your family history off for professional printing and binding?

TASK: Return to the reminders in your diary. Next to entry for the final review session, add in a note to treat yourself to whatever you’ve chosen once you’ve attained your goal.

Tips for Goal Setting Success

Feeling engaged by the five-step plan? Here are a couple of tips to keep you focused and engaged with the process.

Remember to Have Fun

If it’s somehow stopped being fun along the way, then it’s time for a rethink. Goal-setting provides a useful framework to help structure your research, but it shouldn’t make you miserable. Once you’ve set out your aims, they should act as scaffolding to support your research, leaving plenty of space for the fun in between.

Strike a Balance Between Ambition and Realism

Ambition is needed to drive your research forward, but also needs to be tempered with realism. Unrealistic goals will overwhelm you with difficulty and cause you to become disheartened and give up. For instance, if you’re currently working on an individual living around the 1890s, then aiming to get that branch back to the 1600s by the end of next week isn’t likely to be achievable.

If you set yourself a series of completely unattainable goals, then you risk feeling disheartened when you never reach any of them and disengaging from the process altogether. Be pragmatic!

Other Types of Goal Setting

Once you’ve mastered the art of the single goal, try these more involved alternatives…

Sequential Goals

Under normal circumstances I’d call these “tiers”, but here in the UK we’re pretty sick of hearing about those right now. Sequential goals involve a chain of aims which get progressively harder. You might not expect to achieve all of them, but you start with the easiest goal and work upwards. Each completed level furnishes you with more confidence and experience, refining your skills for the more difficult tasks ahead.

Tiered stairs with flights separated by a flat stage in the middle
Sequential goals: climb the first flight of steps, then progress to a harder challenge which takes you even higher. Photo by Henrique Carvalho.
  1. The Low-Hanging Fruit: This needs to be something really achievable, one which you think you can already do. The purpose of Low Hanging Fruit goals is to provide an easily attainable checkpoint which will help to boost your confidence, whilst getting you used to tracking your progress through the five main steps discussed earlier. This could be a small task, such as locating someone’s birth registration record or finding them in a specific record set.
  2. The Step Up: Now push yourself a little further. Perhaps take a broader scope on an area of your research (family reconstitution, FAN club) or choose a more difficult record set to work with (those parish records written in 16th century secretary hand…?).
  3. The Challenge: Think of this as the advanced stage: this should be a goal that will really push you. This might be a tough one to work on and take some time, but should be a valuable experience. Long-standing brick wall problems reside here.

The consecutive stages of your Sequential Goals don’t have to involve the same ancestor or branch of your tree. The idea is to ease yourself into goal setting, form good working habits and maintain your motivation by having some simpler goals crossed off your list early on.

Sector Goals

In his career success book The Pathfinder, Nicholas Lore says, “We often make the mistake of [compartmentalising life] instead of thinking of it as a whole, a complex network of domains that all interrelate and depend on each other.” This is also true of research. Your family history work draws on a range of skills and areas of thought or action: oral history, knowledge of the local area, genetics, palaeography and writing up, to name but a few. These all support one another and feed into the broader picture of your genealogy research, so it makes sense to set goals which acknowledge this interdependence. This is where sector goals come in.

Family history research relies upon a whole range of skills, so each of us has naturally weaker areas which we’d benefit from improving. If you like a bit of variety, then consider making goals in a few different areas to ensure your skillset and your research is improving across the board.

Suggested areas to choose from when making sector goals: community, local context, oral history, knowledge, technique, DNA, archives, active research
Suggested areas for Sector Goals. Setting out ambitions to improve in more than one area will take a greater time investment, but can boost your genealogy work with variety & strength.

The list shown in the above schematic is far from exhaustive (you could include additional categories such as writing up, checking research, or foreign language skills). Some are broad: for instance, “knowledge” could refer to knowledge of your ancestor’s national history, knowledge of a particular record set or knowledge of the occupational life of railway workers. A researcher establishing sector goals might choose three or four areas and specify an ambition in each. See this (fictitious) example:

  • Community: Investigate and join a local family history society, attend several online events and write at least two substantial contributions for their genealogy newsletter by the end of the year;
  • Oral history: Review existing oral history recordings from relatives and transcribe them. Compile a list of questions for Aunts Betty and Doris and interview them about the FALLON branch of the family;
  • Archives: Go through all archival notes and photographs from 2019-20. Set up a system for organising the digital files; sort, transcribe and cross-reference all images prior to any further archival visits;
  • DNA: Sign up for Institution X’s course on genetic genealogy to learn about how to use the results of autosomal DNA testing. Curate a tree for sharing with matches and contact 3rd cousin atDNA matches on MyHeritage and Ancestry.

Note that each sector has something different to offer; that each goal is specific enough without being unduly restrictive; and that time limits are put on many of the items. This researcher most likely has a stimulating year ahead, with a variety of tasks to hold their interest and enhance their genealogy in several different directions! Taking the sector goal approach can support more rounded development as a researcher.

And finally…

Research by its very nature is a leap into the unknown, in which each new challenge is an exciting mystery. Sometimes it will work out, and sometimes – whether because of a pesky ancestor evading detection, non-survival of records, or deficiencies in our own research methods – it won’t. That’s OK.

Throughout the journey ahead, remember that your goal should act like a compass: it shows you the direction of travel, but you’re still the one in charge of the decision-making. Whatever the outcome, it should be a positive experience: a good goal-getting trajectory will always leave you with more knowledge, skills and experience than when you started – and best of all, it should bring you closer than ever to those ancestors you’re always trying to meet…

Compass image
Like a compass, let goals be your guide. Image by Chris Blakeley via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

2 thoughts on “Promises to Your Ancestors: Making (and Keeping) Your Genealogy Goals

  1. Thank you Sophie, appreciate your comments and thank you for including my details in your own post. I am a firm believer in being truthful with what you want to achieve and openly admitting when you don’t achieve your goals. I also like to look back to see what caused that particular failure. Like my Top 10 Sins of a Genealogist blog, which became extremely popular, being open and honest with yourself, is a big factor in avoiding making the same mistakes repeatedly. Because I totally lost my way a few years ago with my research, I now routinely set goals and review them regularly. I might not hit every target, but at least I know what target I am supposed to be aiming at!

  2. Sophie, Thank you for including my blog in your post. Some years, I make more goals, while in others, I set fewer goals. As Paul commented, it is important to acknowledge when goals aren’t met. I had renaming all my images on my goal list for 2 years before lockdown got me motivated to check it off my list. The most important thing about goal setting is to create a few goals that are measurable and achievable. Or – as you said, motivated by public accountability. That is keeping me on track for the boring task of cleaning up my genealogy software. 🙂

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