By Patricia Hartley
It’s every family historian’s dream to one day devote all of our waking hours to our personal genealogy. Imagine waking up, pouring a hot cup of coffee, logging on to your computer, opening up ten tabs and just digging in for the next eight hours, starting where you left off the night before. Or maybe you take the day to visit family cemeteries or travel to a distant library or courthouse to continue your research.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t have the luxury of unlimited time for genealogy–at least not yet. Work, family, school, and other obligations often leave little time for hobbies, even those as precious to us as family history research. One of the many reasons genealogy becomes a lifetime pursuit is because the number of places, records, and people to discover outnumbers the number of hours available to find them.
So how can we get our research fix and still accomplish everything else we need to do in our day? One option is to follow a regimen that’s popular with people looking to fit exercise, jazz practice, journaling, and even baking artisan bread into a busy schedule: try to carve out just fifteen minutes a day for your passion.
Just think…fifteen minutes a day for 365 days adds up to more than 90 hours of ancestor sleuthing each year! Of course, you can adapt this plan to fit your own available time. Do you have an hour each day instead – great! Plan to get even more done. Only have 5 minutes? No problem, scale things back but don’t give up entirely.
The 15 Minute Plan for Achieving Your Genealogy Goals in 2021
So how will you spend your fifteen minutes a day this year? Here, we present a full seven day’s worth of ideas to get your family-finding sessions off to a great start. These are just ideas though – you should design a schedule that fits your needs.
Day 1: Get Organized
The best way to spend your first fifteen minutes is to get organized – because being clear about your goals will get you a lot further.
Start now by making a weekly list of goals – people to research, records to finds, tasks to complete – and check them off as you complete them each day. Use the following days in this list for inspiration on what to focus on.
Each and every week, use your first 15 minutes to get organized for the rest of that week’s days and make use of your organization system to stay on top of your plan. If you don’t already have an organization system in place for your genealogy research you’ll want to consider taking this online organization course just for family historians. It will make the job of staying on track easy.
Of course, any research is better than no research so, even if you’re not a big fan of planning ahead, you can still make a lot of progress in your allotted time. But being very clear about what you want to accomplish and how you might go about it will always take you further.
Day 2: Focus On and Fact-Check Only One Ancestor
With only fifteen minutes to dedicate to your family history research each day, time management is key. Trying to work on more than one ancestor in that time period may prove overwhelming. A better use of your time would be to focus on only one family member each day and progress through your tree in an organized fashion with each additional day.
Perhaps you could start with your grandfather, then your great-grandfather, etc., following your father’s paternal line as far as you can, then pick up your research with your father’s maternal line.
What should you do with your fifteen minutes per family member?
That depends on what information you’ve already gathered. For example, you probably have a lot of information on your grandfather – obviously one of your most recent ancestors. But how long has it been since you reviewed his profile for missing pieces of information or searched for new records?
Is the data you entered when you started your genealogy journey consistent with the format you’ve adopted since then, and is it properly sourced? Even if you find no issues during your fact-checking, this review may reveal new clues or potential avenues of research you’ve previously overlooked.
Day 3: Start a Log for Future Research
Most family historians have learned (sometimes the hard way) that proper planning is key to fruitful research. Picking a database or website at random and searching page by page for familiar surnames is frustrating and, frankly, a waste of your valuable time. Instead, use your fifteen minutes to list sources for future research using a research log.
Research logs come in a variety of formats; you can create your own in a spreadsheet program or download a research log template from FamilySearch or another provider–it doesn’t have to be fancy.
The value of a research log is the organization and tracking of what sources have and have not been reviewed or found. A typical log includes the date you reviewed a source, the place you found it, the purpose of your search, the library call number or other reference information, and the source itself, in addition to your findings.
Starting a research log is a great next step after you’ve reviewed a particular ancestor’s profile in a previous session and noted any missing information (see the first suggestion above). During your fifteen minutes, start a research log for that ancestor, notate a specific objective based on your earlier review, and list potential sources for that information.
For example, if you’re searching for your second great-grandfather’s date and place of death, you may include in your log to search probate records, cemetery records, or mortality schedules from reasonable time periods and counties. You can then devote future fifteen minute sessions to checking out each of these resources, one-by-one.
Day 4: Follow the Leads
Even the most old-school family historian appreciates the hints that programs like MyHeritage, Ancestry and FamilySearch provide to alert researchers to new records that have been added to their vast databases or discovered based on updated search algorithms. Your fifteen-minute research window is a great time to review some of the leads these hints provide.
Remember, though, that no hint should be accepted blindly. Just because Ancestry suggests that the Ben Jones in a record might be your Benjamin A. Jones, Jr. doesn’t automatically confirm that it’s a match.
Spend your fifteen minutes opening and reviewing these records–one ancestor at a time–and carefully compare the information to what you’ve already learned before hitting the “accept” or “attach” buttons. And for goodness sake, if your hint is another subscriber’s online tree, consider all of the information within unreliable until you’ve done your own due diligence on the facts.
For more help with this read Another Person’s Family Tree is Not a Valid Source or take Family History Daily’s Ancestry Crash Course.
Day 5: Review Your DNA Matches
If you’ve completed a DNA test from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, or another provider, your DNA profile is constantly being compared to that of every new person submitting their sample–which means that you’re likely to find new matches at least every few weeks.
Why not use one of your fifteen minute-family-frenzy sessions to check for new DNA cousins? If you find a new match, you have plenty of time to review the connection and even send a quick note to introduce yourself.
Day 6: Brush Up on Your Skills
If you’re not quite up to research or review when your daily fifteen minutes roll around, use this time to learn a little more about what’s new in genealogy research. Read helpful articles or catch a quick podcast or YouTube video from Family Tree Magazine or Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems series. You might also like to take an online genealogy course.
Even the most seasoned genealogists can pick up a new tip or trick from another pro every now and then!
Day 7: Back Up
If you do nothing else on the final day of your research week, make sure you have backed up your tree and records – because it is a terrible thing to lose years of research. This guide will walk you through the four steps necessary to make that happen.
If you’ve already placed your backups on autopilot, or plan to only back up once a month, use your time today to catch up on things you couldn’t complete during the week. Then, you’ll be all ready to use day 1 to get organized for a new week of research!
Originally published in Jan 2019, updated Dec 2020
For nearly 30 years Patricia Hartley has researched and written about the ancestry and/or descendancy of her personal family lines, those of her extended family and friends, and of historical figures in her community. After earning a B.S. in Professional Writing and English and an M.A. in English from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama, she completed an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University. She’s a member of the Alabama Genealogical Society, Association of Professional Genealogists, National Genealogical Society, International Society of Family History Writers, Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society, Natchez Trace Genealogical Society and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review. She lives with her husband Doug, a firefighter and paramedic, on the beautiful Tennessee River. Patricia has two children, Jessica and Jamie, both graduates of the University of North Alabama.