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Avoid Being Overwhelmed By Your Genealogy Research

Avoid Being Overwhelmed By Your Genealogy Research

Tips On How To Avoid Being Overwhelmed by Genealogy Research

How could genealogy possibly be overwhelming? You might be saying to yourself after reading the title of this post, that genealogy is what in fact keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. While genealogy is fun and relaxing, it also challenges us to process a lot more data and information then we may normally encounter. Our brain doesn’t treat genealogy like any other part of our daily life; when it’s overwhelmed, it lets us know. This can make us feel frustrated, defeated, and less interested in genealogy then we once were. So how does someone work to avoid this? Try some of these suggestions to prevent this from happening:

Stick to your research plan

A couple weeks ago, I suggested to readers 4 Steps To Better Research Plans. Plans are used for a reason: they keep us on task. With the plethora of online databases and archives we use for genealogy, I think we can all say it’s a bit easy to get sidetracked. I might see something in the stacks that looks interesting, but was it a part of my plan for things to look at for this day? In some cases, our intuition might be telling us something, but we can get easily overwhelmed if we lose focus or try too look at too much in one day. You can incorporate into your plan when you visit the archives to reserve a bit of time to just browse. We shouldn’t completely suppress our curiosity, but when our research time is limited, we need to focus and manage our time effectively to achieve our research goals.

Consider how you organize your information

A common problem for people doing genealogy is being organized and not having an effective system for processing information. Too many documents can make us susceptible to feeling overwhelmed. Organization is especially important if you’re someone who is “on and off” researcher. Without a system for organizing your research, the relevance of a particular source or page you printed may escape you if it’s not documented in some form.

If you feel your organization could use improvement or you have a lot of documents to process to achieve your genealogy goals, take a break from research to get organized. It’s one of the best things I ever did when I realized it was too cumbersome to keep going without a system in place. Whatever system you decide to work with, documenting as you go is very important because you don’t need to rely on personal memory later.

One of my goals in getting my genealogy organized was to make it easier to access my information on a particular ancestor. You never know when your going to need something or share it with a relative, so having your documentation and records in one place helps in being prepared. As a millennial, I have an affinity for working digitally. Even though I have many family documents and take hand written notes, I scan them all or copy them into my logs. Of course, genealogy was done well before the digital age, so there are systems that rely on charts and booklets that can help us stay organized. Explore and think about what systems for organizing best serves you. You can try some of these resources to explore different methods for organizing your genealogy research:

 Don’t overdo it and take care of yourself first

Overdoing anything is not good. Whether we're working on genealogy or not, maintaining a balance is the key to health and happiness. Too much time on the computer or microfilm reader is not good for our eyes and it may be just that were so focused on doing research that it’s becoming stressful and our brain would like us to take a break. Staying off the research every once in a while is definitely a good thing. Try new activities or other hobbies that you enjoy, or devote sometime to your genealogy education with a class, book, or webinar. All of this will help you recharge yourself for research and in the process, give you some new strategies and ideas to use in your genealogy pursuits.

Writers hear all the time that they should proofread work with a fresh set of eyes, so why not do the same with genealogy? Looking at our research or brickwall with a fresh set of eyes can lead us to new clues. This concept reminds me of one of my favorite personal research stories, which led me to solve the mystery of my great-great grandmother Elizabeth Williams Freeman. A long standing brickwall in my family tree, it all came crashing down after browsing old family documents, which included a picture postcard of her son (my great-grandfather) James Wallace Freeman. The name of the recipient “Mrs. Elizabeth Shields of Kellogg, Idaho” intrigued me enough to look into it. Sure enough, my research was able to identify her as Elizabeth Freeman Williams and ultimately led me to learn about what happened to her after she divorced Wallace Freeman.

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 8.16.39 PM Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 8.16.47 PM

James Wallace Freeman Photo Postcard to Mrs. Elizabeth Shields [ca. 1916]. Author's Personal Collection.

 Try a different family or line in your tree

There’s always a tendency to get involved in one particular family. It’s great to be determined, but this determination could turn into frustration. Genealogy is never done and there’s always ground to gain somewhere. Maybe there’s a particular family or ancestor you spent much time on. Perhaps you heard about a new source or database that could help you with a different ancestor. This might be a good way to continue research, but also divert your attention away from the frustration.

Feeling like there’s no ground to gain on your family? Help others with their genealogy. Not only do you give yourself a break from personal frustration, but you get to share your love and knowledge of genealogy with others!

Avid genealogists might say there’s no way genealogy can be overwhelming, but this post serves as a gentle reminder of how we need to approach genealogy with balance. It’s not just about diligent research. We all got into genealogy because of the benefits it brought to our lives and wellbeing. Don’t let being overwhelmed or frustrated take away from that!


Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator and blogger. Jake has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. He currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).



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Fletcher, Your article on being overwhelmed was very helpful. Now I know I am not alone.
Twice in your first paragraph, you use the word "then" when making comparisons like
"less then" or "more then". You should use "than" when saying something is less or more than. This is a common mistake that writers make. I'm surprised your spell check or Grammarly didn't catch it.
Nice work, nonetheless.
Thanks for putting the article together.

John D. Barthel

This article is just what I need right now. I have been building my family tree in preparation for a DNA test. As a result I have been swamped by hints on family names and from other family trees. There is so much information coming from database resources and family, that as a result I am feeling overwhelmed. I have completed, I feel enough information on all branches of my family tree to hopefully get a good DNA result, but if not, then I will keep searching, but where there are brickwalls I will have to accept it is time to look at other family. I have put in an expression of interest to undertake a course in Family History in 2017. My study may allow me to take my obsession to help others. I will now take that break and reorganise to help me refocus. Thanks!

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