How to turn your genealogy to-do list into 15-minute tasks

How to turn your genealogy to-do list into 15-minute tasks

Do genealogy and productivity go together? This topic elicits an enthusiastic response from family history enthusiasts whenever I mention it. The truth is that time management (and 15-minute tasks) aren’t for everyone.

However, my inbox tells me that the number one struggle for the average family historian time. We all have busy lives and more to-dos than time to do them. So, is it any wonder there is a growing trend to move towards time management and doing more in less time?

As a result of spending less time on your goals, you’ll make slower progress. The upside is you can squeeze more into your schedule rather than being all in or all out for an extended block of time. Slow progress is better than no progress, right?

Like many of you, I no longer have the luxury of spending an hour or more on my family history in one session. So, knowing I can make progress on my goals in smaller blocks of time is a powerful motivator.

I found a lot of information online about genealogy tasks you can do in “15-minute or less”. They are great lists to help you start thinking about batching and making specific goals. Then it would help if you found a way to create a list customised to your research and the way you work.

That’s where this article comes in. I’ll share what has been working for me and show you what to do so you can give it a go as well.

Cocoa, clips, watch and productivity planner to capture your 15-minute tasks
Planner to capture your 15-minute tasks

Start with a productivity system.

Hmmm, that sounds fancy. Do you need a productivity system to do a little genealogy research?

The system isn’t for the research; it’s for you. Think of it as a trusty sidekick in your battle to get things done. It will help you:

  • Capture everything running loose in your brain (bonus, you won’t have to worry about remembering to do it because it’s now “in the system”.)
  • Create a structure to manage ongoing and future tasks.
  • Manage existing tasks, so you start to get things done.

I use a system based on David Allen’s book—Getting Things Done. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s a productivity staple designed to be customisable to fit each situation.

The premise of his system is to get everything out of your brain and on a series of lists (Ancestors, General, Someday, Waiting, References). Then you use regular brain dumps and list reviews to check in and keep everything moving.

Full disclosure, the setup can be time-consuming. If you make it through and follow the process, then the system works.

Shall we get started?

Develop your productivity system

There are five steps in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. They are:

  • Capture
  • Clarify
  • Organise
  • Review
  • Engage

1. Capture

  • Open a spreadsheet (Excel, Google Sheets or other) and in the first column, write down every Ancestor you know you want to discover. If you don’t know their name, use the relationship.
  • In the second column, add a row under each name for what you want to discover (e.g. date of birth, occupation, spouse etc.)
  • Back to the first column, add general genealogy tasks like filing, posting in your social media groups, interviewing living ancestors or corresponding with cousins.
  • In the first column again, add any online forums you moderate (including your Facebook groups).
  • Finally, in the first column, include any genealogy events that you want to organise or attend.

You can also do this as a document with bullet points instead of the second column if you prefer.

Now you have a complete list of every genealogy-related task that you do! And a list of all of the ancestors that you know you want to research. Your lists are evolving documents so if you’ve forgotten something, add it later.

If you use a research log, then you may already have a list in progress. You can add to it there or create a new document. This system is yours, so do what makes sense to you.

Laptop, notecards, pen and getting things done notebook
Productivity tools to help you get things done

2. Clarify

In step one, you created a master list of everything you need to do. Now you’ll process that list and put each task or project in a category:


Each Ancestor is a project with multiple tasks. Some of those tasks will also be projects. For example, “order xx birth certificate” is a task because it’s a single action, while “find the spouse name for xx” is a project because many steps are involved. Each location you search, relative you’ll contact or document you’ll read is a task in the “find the spouse name for xx” project.


This category covers things you know you need or want to do, but they aren’t related to a specific ancestor. The goal is to keep your to-dos to 15-minute tasks. For example, if you have a massive pile of filing—physical or digital—consider how much you can do in 15-minutes. If it’s ten items, then the task is to “file ten items”.


The category for things you might do in the future but have no immediate plans to action. Examples include projects such as 

  • plan a family reunion
  • write a book about my paternal family line
  • create a family history website
  • take a genealogy vacation.


A place for general actions you’ve taken, and the next step is up to someone else. If it’s related to a specific ancestor, keep it on their list because it’s a part of a project. This list is the home for single-action items where you are waiting on someone else. Examples include waiting on:

  • test results from AncestryDNA
  • response from Cousin Barry
  • family photos from Aunt Matilda.


Consider this an index for all of the resources you have in your genealogy toolkit that you don’t want to lose. You can have digital or physical files such as worksheets, country-specific dictionaries/encyclopedias, family histories written by other people etc. 

If you created a spreadsheet, then you can add this category in the third column. Then use filters to see what is in each category.

3. Organise

Find a “home” for everything. Firstly, add all important dates to your calendar, set up folders for digital filing and purchase binders or files for the physical papers you need to store.

4. Review

For the system to work, you need to manage it. Therefore that means staying on top of future to-dos that you don’t know about yet and checking off the ones you’ve done (who doesn’t love that part?). It would be best if you did this frequently, which means every week or two. The upside? It’s one of your 15-minute tasks. The downside? You’ll need to schedule time for this one, so put a recurring event in your calendar.

During the review, you’ll:

  • capture, clarify and organise new tasks
  • cross off anything you’ve completed
  • review your lists and decide what to action next

Schedule this task weekly to keep it easy to manage. If life gets in the way and you have to skip it, then it’s only another seven days until you complete another review.

Stylus and iPad showing a digital planner to schedule 15-minute tasks
Digital planner to schedule your 15-minute tasks

5. Engage

Now you’ll have a list of 15-minute tasks you can tackle when you have a spare window of time. You’ve organised the list to see what you need to do in a specific location (e.g. your home office or the library) and what can be done anyway (e.g. phone calls or answering email).

Ideally, your list will be portable, but if it’s not, write the first 7 to 10 in your calendar so you can access and action them during the week.

Software to make organising your tasks easier

Creating your list in a productivity app can make it easier to view and maintain. Particularly if you choose an option that you can view on your phone, tablet or desktop computer.

Heads up, this list contains some affiliate links (marked with *), and The Creative Family Historian will earn a small percentage if you make a purchase via these links.

or productivity software like

Customise your productivity with 15-minute tasks

Are you ready to start making progress on your family history research again? Adapt the Getting Things Done methodology for your genealogy journey in order to create a customised to-do system for your tasks.

  • Capture everything you know you want to do with a brain dump.
  • Clarify what you need to do as projects and tasks.
  • Organise your lists and paperwork, so you don’t waste time.
  • Schedule frequent reviews to manage future tasks and maintain the system.
  • Work through your lists in the order you choose to get things done.

By treating each Ancestor’s life as a project, you can quickly break down each task so it will take 15-minutes or less. Batch similar tasks together (e.g. searches of the same database), and be sure to keep records to track your progress—a research log, diary or notes in productivity software.

Then start to schedule 15-minute sessions or look for windows in your day or week to start to work through a task or two.

Which Ancestor is going to be your first project?

What do you think?

Do you struggle to find enough time for your genealogy research? Leave a comment below and let me know whether you think a productivity system and 15-minute tasks will work for you.

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