6 easy steps to set your genealogy goals and make them SMART
What does S.M.A.R.T. mean, and why does it matter when it comes to your genealogy goals?
You already know that goals are a crucial part of achieving success. By creating goals, you’re developing a roadmap to get from where you are to where you want to be. The more defined that map is, the easier it will be to follow it.
S.M.A.R.T goals is a technique that helps you ensure that what you want is achievable and actionable. You’ll use this technique to set realistic targets to measure your progress as you go. Why? Because monitoring progress helps with focus, motivation and makes it easy to conduct reviews. And those regular reviews mean you can adapt and adjust when you need to.
Maybe it sounds like a lot of work, but it’s an efficient and easy-to-use system. First, let’s look at how it works, then dive into how it fits into your genealogy goals process.
S.M.A.R.T. goals are:
- Specific – be clear about what you want to achieve
- Measurable – determine how you’ll track your progress
- Achievable – confirm that what you want to do is possible
- Realistic – you have a starting point and can begin immediately
- Time-bound – when do you need to have the goal completed
Now, you might think either goal setting doesn’t apply to genealogy research or that they don’t need to be so defined. After all, you either find information about your ancestor or don’t, right?
Unless you research without an objective in mind, you are already setting genealogy goals, even if they are vague and undefined. Developing those goals into a plan will give you more focus, motivation and potentially reduce the number of roadblocks.
It also doesn’t take as long as you might think to get everything in place. Below I’ll run through my standard goal-setting process and explain how it works specifically for genealogy research.
Making your genealogy goals S.M.A.R.T.
Step One: The Brain Dump
Before you dive into making your goals S.M.A.R.T, you need to know what your goals are. Sounds reasonable, right?
Start with a brain dump to get everything out of your head and onto paper (physical or digital) to set the foundation for what you want to achieve.
Keep it simple, use a timer and don’t overthink anything. Just write (or type) all the things that pop into your mind. You can refine and add to the list later if you want. This step is to capture all the items on your mind. Give yourself 30 minutes for this task, 10 minutes for each step.
Step 1: Current goals
- Set the timer
- Write out your current goals
- Add the status of each one if you know it
Step 2: New records
- Set the timer
- Write down any records that will become available in the foreseeable future
- Add any goals you have that relate specifically to those records.
Step 3: Everything else
- Set the timer
- Write down everything else you want to achieve next year.
For example, find out your 3x great-grandmother’s maiden name, write Great-Uncle George’s story, or create a family history book series. Leave the list for a day or so, then review it as you may think of other tasks to include.
Step Two: Make your genealogy goals S.M.A.R.T.
Now it’s time to review every item on your brain dump against the S.M.A.R.T. goals technique.
Using this technique for your family history projects may be new to you, so let’s do it together. First, I’ll break down what each letter stands for and explain how to apply it when setting your genealogy goals.
Be clear about what you want to achieve.
For example, your goal might be to find your 3x great grandmother. That’s a great goal but let’s make life a little bit easier for “Future You” and make it super clear.
Rewrite it and include information such as the:
- connecting ancestor (spouse or child)
- range of years you’ll use for the search
- all the locations where you believe she lived
- one vital detail that you want to discover.
So your rewritten goal might look something like “to discover the name, date, and place of death for your 3x great grandmother (mother of 2x great grandfather Henry Drew) in Surrey, England, between the years of 1815 and 1850“.
If you have other clues or ideas, such as possible names, specific locations, or dates, include those to define your starting point better. Drilling down on the details doesn’t limit you to only proving or disproving those clues. Instead, you’re giving yourself a head start on making discoveries. Getting specific about goals doesn’t mean that you don’t want to discover as much information as you can. Of course, you do. But determining the boundaries around each step means you know where to start and how to track your progress.
Determine how you’ll track your progress.
As you know, making genealogy discoveries isn’t the same as writing a book or learning to run 5km. So for those types of goals, you’d choose strategic milestones that measured your progress, such as the number of words written or kilometres run without walking.
Progress needs to be tracked a little differently for genealogy goals because you can’t necessarily measure by percentages. My approach is to create a checklist of resources and rate each research session by what you did or didn’t discover.
Your rating system should include three options such as:
- nothing found
- potential information
- solid clue.
The rating data is what you’ll use to track your progress. So by making a specific goal and defining what you want to know, where and when you’ll look, you set the foundation for how to measure your progress.
The next step is to brainstorm the databases and other resources that you’ll search to find out this information. These resources and the rating system will be the milestones you’ll use to measure your progress towards the goal. This list doesn’t need to be exhaustive, as you can add more resources to it as you uncover them and if they are relevant to this goal.
Confirm that what you want to do is possible.
Mulder was confident that “the truth is out there” in the X Files, but unfortunately, it isn’t always the case when it comes to genealogy 😭. Many details have been lost, destroyed, or never captured. So unless you have access to a time machine, you need to rely on the preserved historical information currently available.
Therefore, before committing to a goal, you need to determine what existing records or details will help you achieve it. Consider the region, culture, and era you will be researching to determine if the documents you need exist. Also, be prepared to get creative with where you look for your ancestor, as you can often discover vital facts via lesser-known resources.
To check off a goal as achievable, you need to be sure that there is a chance of finding the information. Investigate the details of each database or resource you plan to search in (see brainstorm list from Measure) to ensure that it covers the required location, dates, and details. Due to global, national, or local events, records for a specific area or year may have been destroyed or not captured at all.
You have a starting point and can begin immediately.
Determining whether your goal is realistic is a simple process. In fact, it’s a yes or no question.
The question is — Do you have enough clues to start searching for this person today? If you can answer yes, then you have a realistic goal. However, if you need to discover details about other people first to unlock those clues, then shelve this task for now. Adjust your plan to relate to the other ancestors instead.
Let’s go back to our example where you’re looking for your 3x great grandmother. To find her, you’ll need a starting point, which means you’ll need to know some vital statistics about a connecting relative, such as a spouse, sibling, or child. There needs to be enough information to search for your mysterious ancestor. Ideally, you’ll have a date range, location and potentially a name or initial.
Real-life example. My cousin, Sue, uncovered our 3x great grandmother’s name with the date and location of 2x great grandmother’s baptism. She could verify those two details, so she used them as a starting point.
If you’re curious, yes, the certificate included the parents’ names and — plot twist — they were false. After several years of looking for imaginary people, she decided to ignore that detail and look for them as though we didn’t know their names.
Either when you need to complete the goal or commit to working on it.
It’s not always possible to put a timeframe on finding your ancestors. Obviously, you want to discover them as quickly as you can, but it takes as long as it takes.
Start by asking yourself if there is a date that you need to have the goal completed? For example, you might be putting together details for a book project or upcoming family reunion.
If you have a deadline, then that date is your time-bound commitment. But if you don’t, it will be the dates you commit to working on it. You’ll then add this to your schedule as a task to complete during that timeframe (e.g. July and August).
Adding the task to your schedule means that it won’t get forgotten, as it will be a critical project for that period, so you have a greater chance of achieving the goal. On the other hand, not committing to a timeframe makes it easier to get distracted and never get it done.
So that covers how you can use the S.M.A.R.T. technique to create your genealogy goals. Let’s not stop there, though, as there are only a few other steps to complete the entire goal-setting process.
Step Three: Categorise your genealogy goals
Your plan looks well organised and actionable at this stage; you’ve only a few more steps to go. The next step is to split the list into two groups — easy and hard.
Are you wondering why? After all, a goal is a goal. It all must get done, so does it matter if it’s easy or hard? Yes. Yes, it does, but I like your attitude! I’ll talk about this more in Step 5, but the short answer is splitting your goals up makes it easier to schedule when to work on them, get quick wins and keep you motivated.
It’s up to you what criteria you apply to the split, but I do it this way.
- Easy goals have multiple records available, and you have a reasonable expectation of finding your ancestor in the databases in a short timeframe.
- Hard goals are the more challenging ones. Records will be sparser, you have fewer clues to use, and you will need a more significant time investment to make discoveries.
You can create more categories if it makes sense to do so. Adjust and adapt the structure, so it’s the best fit for the way you work. Don’t overcomplicate it though, keep it as simple as you can.
Step Four: Add to your task management system
You have your goals done and dusted, so now it’s time to do the final few steps to streamline the process. In this step, you’ll add them to your task management system, so you can start working towards achieving each one. As you go, highlight which ones are “easy” or “hard” with colour coding, labels, or a similar approach so you can see it at a glance.
No single task management system suits all family historians. Instead, choose something that fits your research and work style. For example, some people like a paper-based scheduling system; others use an excel file or productivity management software. It doesn’t matter what your process is as long as it works for you.
I use Trello and manage all my goals in a Research Log. It’s my one-stop shop for everything to do with genealogy research. It’s a list-based workflow, with colour coding, labels and due dates to manage when to work on different tasks. If you’re curious, you can see my Trello Research Log in action and learn how to set up something similar for your use. Watch it on YouTube.
Step Five: Schedule what you’ll work on first
Once you have added all your current goals into the task management system, it’s time to start scheduling when you’ll work on each one.
You determined the deadline of each goal in Step Two, so add those dates to your system or calendar. If using a digital calendar, set a reminder for two weeks before the deadline. Consider it a gentle reminder that you need to get the goal completed or rescheduled.
While there is no right or wrong approach to scheduling your goals, it’s a good idea not to overwhelm yourself with too many things due at once. By adding everything to the calendar, you’ll get an overview of when to work on each task.
If you have lots of time for research, aim to complete up to three things per week — two easy and one hard. But if you are more of an occasional genealogist, make that fortnightly, monthly, or even quarterly — whatever suits your schedule. Setting goals should motivate and encourage you, not make you feel overwhelmed or pressured.
The less complicated discoveries will give you a quick win, which keeps you motivated and enthusiastic about progressing with the more challenging tasks.
Step Six: Review regularly
Finally, you want to schedule a time to review, update or adjust your goals. After all, things change, life happens, some of those easy goals might turn out to be quite complex and vice versa.
Regular reviews will help you track your progress, spot potential problems, and adjust your tasks as you go. Aim for weekly reviews if you research one or more times a week. However, fortnightly or monthly reviews might suit your schedule better if you’re a more occasional family historian.
Take 15 to 30 minutes to look at:
- your achievements
- the status of each goal
- what isn’t working
- what you’ll improve, start, or stop doing.
Don’t forget to add these review sessions to your calendar. Scheduling tasks is an essential step in goal setting. It means you’re much more likely to do it because of the visual reminder. Set the reminder with the “recurring event” tool if you use a digital calendar. That way, you only need to create it once, and it repeats at the frequency you choose (e.g. weekly, fortnightly, etc.).
The benefit of planning your genealogy goals
Creating goals is a step towards achieving success because you define what you want and the steps required to make it happen. And that’s as important for family history as it is for every other hobby or desire. After all, you can only research one ancestor at a time. True, you can sometimes progress multiple ancestors with one discovery (e.g. residential addresses, death of parent etc.). However, that’s a bonus, not a guarantee.
Your S.M.A.R.T. genealogy goals will be:
- Specific – what you want to achieve
- Measurable –how you’ll track your progress
- Achievable – what you want to do is possible
- Realistic – you have a starting point and can begin today
- Time-bound – when you’re going to tackle the tasks
And setting these S.M.A.R.T. goals doesn’t require a massive time investment, nor does it have to all be done in one session. While you can complete the whole process in a couple of hours, you can also split it over a week or more. Experiment, review and adapt to fit the way you work and the time you have.
Now you have a complete understanding of S.M.A.R.T. genealogy goals and how to apply the technique to your family history projects. Are you ready to get started?
Your next step
Download the S.M.A.R.T. Research Goal Planner (updated December 2021) and start planning genealogy goals for the next month, quarter or year.