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The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

Do you chase bright lights and shiny objects as you research genealogy or slip down the proverbial rabbit hole? It's easy to do, and I think most of us have been guilty of chasing a bright light or two.

When I was researching papers for my college degrees before the Internet, it was a pretty simple process. I used microfilm, books, periodicals, and the occasional database. I wrote down what I found on index cards with the source citation and then organized them to write a paper. When I began researching genealogy, I used a similar system.

But fast forward to today, I can go online to search for a female ancestor in a census, and the next thing I know, I'm researching 19th-century conchology and women collectors, which then, of course, leads me to wonder what books exist on the topic. And then, of course, I need to do some newspaper search. Surely there is a YouTube lecture done by a marine biologist on the subject of 19th-century women collectors of shells and seaweeds.

Well, you get the point. Often the simple genealogy question leads us in all kinds of directions. The value of the Internet is all of the information you can find. The drawback of the Internet is all the information you can find.

I'm not saying all bright lights are bad. It's important to ask questions as we research. And those bright lights can help us find sources we need to learn and tell our ancestors stories. But they can also distract us from our original research question.

So how do you avoid getting distracted as you search for your ancestors? During the height of the COVID pandemic, countless online articles excused our inability to focus on the stress, anxiety, and uncertainness. It was hard to focus when we were living amid a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. However, now that things are getting better will our focus also improve? My guess is even in the absence of the stress of a pandemic with all of the great information at our fingertips, the answer is no.

As we search for our family history, how do we focus so we can find what we are looking for and plan additional research?

How do you focus on the task at hand? I have a few suggestions that help me though I can tell you that I definitely have my moments where I am not as disciplined as I would like.

Have a Research Question

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a research question and not just aimlessly researching. If you have a written research question and a plan, when those distractions happen, and they will, you can ask yourself, “what was my research question?” That might help you to go back to the matter at hand.

Keep a Research Log

I’m a huge fan of research logs. A research log provides an opportunity for you to document your research. But over time, it also helps you to see where you left off should you need to stop researching or chase a bright light. It doesn’t matter what kind of research log you keep (a pre-printed form, spreadsheet, table, etc.). What's important is that you keep it, keep it updated, and refer back to it.

Stick a Pin In It

I can sympathize with everyone who has trouble focusing. I can go from looking for information on my World War I ancestor to wondering what it was like to be on a World War-era naval ship in less than 2 minutes. When you have those bright lights that call out to you, but you don't have the time to deal with it, what can you do? Stick a pin in it.

What I mean by “stick a pin in it” is that I write down that great idea/distraction and come back to it when I can. I keep a list of notes in my iPhone Note app. That way, I know I won't forget (otherwise I will), and I know I can look it up later, whether that is tomorrow or next month. Once I have revisited it, I delete that note from the app (and add it to my research log or genealogy software, if appropriate). You might want to use a to-do list, a reminder app, or a notepad. But whatever you use, write down those great ideas and revisit them when you have time.

Give In To It

Yes, of course, there are times where I can't resist that bright light, and I go ahead and chase it. Sometimes that stops the ongoing temptation and distraction to just meet it head-on. Take a break and spend 30 minutes to an hour. Set a timer so that you can go back to what you were doing when the time is up. Otherwise, you might find yourself still awake at 1 am pondering your latest distraction.

I will admit that I set several alarms on my phone for my day to remind myself when to end/start tasks I need to complete. I find that by not having to worry about the time, I can get more done.

How Do You Dim the Bright Lights?

I’m interested in how you address the bright lights that invariably shine as you research your family history. Do you have a tip, app, or process that helps you focus? How do you keep focused on your family history? Let me know in the comments!


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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I have a separate offline file that is just direct ancestors and their immediate families. When chasing the bright lights or BSO's (Bright Shiny Objects) which is usually online I know I have something else to go back to. So after my encounter with chasing the light or the rabbit down the hole I will go back to my offline file and do something constructive whether it's cleaning up a citation, media, place names etc. I will also see what constructive research paths that may make more sense to pursue. This way I keep focused on what matters. The more I keep going back to the file that matters, reformulating more specific objectives the less I'm chasing the bright light but know it's ok to chase so long as I keep going back either right after or the next day to my what I call my focus or home file.

I have to say that some of my very best finds -- golden nuggets, as I call them -- have been when I spotted something, or someone, I wasn't expecting while searching for something, or someone, else. But I generally do ultimately get back to my original search. It may be the next day, but...

I can so relate to this Gena....." I can go from looking for information on my World War I ancestor to wondering what it was like to be on a World War-era naval ship in less than 2 minutes. ".

Sometimes the shiny bright lights also lead you to learning (really) fascinating historical things! That being said, staying on track, keeping a research log, noting down ideas and new leads - while it's fresh in your head - are so vital for moving ahead.

Nelly (Austria|Slovenia|Italy)

I keep focus by writing-up my research short essays on what have found out about my ancestors, sources and the missing information that I need to document who they were. SOME PEOPLE CALL THIS A RESEARCH REPORT - BUT IT KEEPS ME FOUCUSED MY ACESTORTERS!

I have exposed myself to many possibilities and the lights vie for my attention so that I don't get anywhere. Very frustrating!

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