7 Ways Running a Business Improved My Research Skills

Hunting for ancestors is similar to working for yourself. You need to be organised, plan ahead and track your progress to see what works and what doesn’t. #familyhistory #planning #goals #organization

Discovering your ancestors is a labour of love and a great way to learn or improve your research skills.

It is a hobby can be both frustrating and rewarding at the same time. And something that can be quite time-consuming if you aren’t intentional about it.

Although it is easy to lose yourself in research for hours, time isn’t the only cost. It’s also expensive to obtain what you need to solve all the mysteries. Copies of records, database subscriptions, and trips to the archives can add up quickly.

During my 25+ years of putting my research skills to the test, I’ve blundered way through all of the ups and downs.

Then I started a business, and everything changed. I learned (quickly) about creating goals and setting a budget. That’s when the giant light bulb went on. I suddenly realised I could apply many of these same tricks to researching. And even adjust some of my business tools for my genealogy toolbox.

Therefore, I started designing planners, customising worksheets and creating searchable resources to save me time and keep me on track. Things that would help to improve my research skills.

I planned quarterly check-ins and annual reviews to make sure that I kept updating the tools and systems. Instead of using the same forms I’d made in 1991, I adjusted everything to reflect what I had learned.

Here are the top lessons I’ve learned while running a business that improved my research skills to find my ancestors.

1. Know your expected outcome

A lot of family history enthusiasts approach their research as wanting to know all the things. You don’t set a specific purpose or expectation because you don’t want to limit yourself. That was my pattern for years; maybe it’s yours too? And because I thought that was working so well with my research, that is how I operated my business.

Of course, it didn’t work. And I quickly saw that it wasn’t really working anywhere else either. What I had interpreted as progressing was actually inching along at a snail pace. I fell into many research rabbit holes chasing distant not-really-relatives who weren’t going helping me discover my ancestors’ stories.

The truth is that we don’t have the time to take detours because of limits to our available time. Every time you go off track, you are ambushing yourself, and therefore risk not making the discoveries you want too.

By deciding on and committing to one single outcome you are freeing yourself from the ‘noise’. It will be easier to set goals and create plans to get the most value from your research sessions.

When you achieve your outcomes, you’ll be able to set new goals based on what you’ve learned along the way.

2. Map out your goals

Once you know what you want to achieve, then you can work out how to get there.

You wouldn’t go to an unfamiliar town and expect to know how to find the places you wanted to visit. You would get a map, pick your starting point and work it out from there. Since starting a business, I’ve applied this technique to my research as well, and it’s been a game changer.

wall of sticky notes outlining tasks to improve research skills
Using sticky notes as task reminders

Rather than looking for ‘all the things’, my specific checklist keeps me on track. If I only have 30 minutes to research, then I pick one or two of the tasks. If I don’t answer the questions in that session, then I can pick it up from there next time.

My goal map and research plans are the same. Rather than a master spreadsheet for everything, I create one for each family unit. Then a worksheet for each person because I can add more and reorder when necessary. Then each sheet has five columns

  • Task category – e.g. birth, death, children etc
  • Sub-task – e.g. full maiden name, date of birth, place of birth
  • Sources checked – e.g. NSW BDM Index, Ancestry.com, family bible
  • Date checked – always handy to know for when databases and indexes receive updates
  • Found – you can make this a yes or no response or add record numbers, whatever makes sense to you

Write down every step you think you’ll need to take to reach the goal. Be sure to include checkpoints so you can assess how you are going. Remember the task list isn’t set-in-stone but a starting point that you can adjust as you go.

3. Manage your time

I used to sit down and ‘ancestor-jump’ my way straight into a research rabbit-hole. I would start at 8 pm with the intention of working for 2 hours. The next thing I know it’s 3 am, and I’m three generations deep in the family of my grand uncle’s second wife’s maid of honour. Interesting, but not necessarily useful.

The answer? More planning. Once you know what you need to discover, then it’s a matter of scheduling the time to do it. A critical step if you have limited research time or a pressing deadline such as writing a book. Even if you are working without deadlines, then a research calendar can still be a useful resource.

The idea is to make this easier, not overwhelm you or take the fun out of the process. Do you love the odd aimless research session? Put one on the calendar every month or so. And don’t feel guilty or non-productive afterwards.

Calendar and pen to schedule all weekly tasks to improve your research skills
Add your goals to a calendar that is visible while you work

If having a schedule is stressing you out then it’s most likely because it has too much on it. Remember that some answers will come quickly and others will take more time and strategic researching. When creating a schedule keep it straightforward by creating planning days for the different task types. EG

  • Researching to find answers to the questions you know
  • Reviewing what you’ve learned to see if you have new questions
  • Writing either the stories you’ve picked up or notes for future use

4. Be flexible

Planning is essential but please remember that life happens, schedules change, and some ancestors will play hide-and-seek in the records. Databases can be offline for maintenance; your internet is down, or the book you need is out on loan.

After all, getting from Point A to Point B is rarely a straight line, particularly where research is concerned.

desk with books, clock, plant, lamp and poster
Be flexible as even the best plans don’t work out

Creating a plan is only to give you structure, not to fence you in. If anything, it should remove some of the pressure because you’ll no longer wonder what to do in each session. You’ll open your list, pick a task and work through it. And if you aren’t having any luck then either:

  • Try another approach because the answer you want may be hiding in another ancestor’s records
  • Move onto another task because that may lead you to where you want to go
  • Research a different ancestor for a while because clarity comes from action

Stepping back and taking a break from a task or problem is often the key to success. You are giving yourself time to think through the problem and come up with alternative solutions.

Finally, look at social media and forums to see if other people are going through the same frustration. Whenever I’m struggling with something, I start to notice other people posting on about similar issues. See problems from another perspective can be a great way to solve them.

5. Collaborate with others when it makes sense

As the saying goes “no man is an island”. Such an excellent reminder that we often unlock solutions and learn new research skills by working with others.

Having collaborators who are researching either the same family or local area as you will provide a fresh perspective. After all, what is often so obvious to you is a complex mystery to others, and vice versa. They may also have inherited records that hold the answers that will kickstart your research again.

Older couple with younger woman combining their research skills
Collaborate with others to get a fresh perspective

If you don’t know of any cousins working on the same family, consider

  • Joining genealogy related Facebook groups or forums
  • Contacting the family history or historical society in the area you are researching
  • Adding a public tree to a popular genealogy site
  • Searching other family trees for your ancestor to see who else is looking for them too

Chatting through the problem with others can offer insight and another point-of-view. You don’t need to take every suggestion on board, but it may inspire an alternative approach.

6. Invest wisely

This tip may not change your research skills, but it might help your budget.

Genealogy is not an inexpensive hobby. In the beginning, you can do a lot where the only cost is your time. Most libraries have subscriptions to the big genealogy sites that will give you access to millions of records. Some of them will even be for your ancestors.

This method will only take you so far though. Eventually, you’ll need to think about investing in your ancestors. And not just because you need to purchases certificates or other records, though that point will come.

Items you will want to consider investing in consider:

  • Family tree software to add everything you’ve learned. Most software will offer a free trial, so you can find the one that suits your style.
  • A scanner to digitise your records and photos. Ask for recommendations in groups or forums to find out what’s good and what’s not.
  • A paid subscription to a site not available at the library. Save up your searches to get the best value. So look for places where you can purchase short time periods (e.g. one week or month).
  • Templates to create a family history book or shareable story. Look for versions compatible with software you own so you can reuse them to tell all of your ancestors’ stories.

If you are working with others on the same family line, consider splitting the cost and sharing resources where feasible.

7. Review and revise your tools and processes

Running a business has shown me how important it is to have the right tools, systems and methods. Using old resources can cost you time and may cause you to miss important details. Also remember that as your research skills improve and you gain experience, your processes will change. Sometimes without you even realising it.

Worksheets and planners to help improve your research skills
Regularly review your genealogy toolbox to make sure you have the resources you need

Make a date with yourself every six to twelve months to examine everything in your genealogy toolbox. Look at:

  • Whether you have to adjust worksheets every time you use them
  • If there are steps in your process that you skip every time
  • Whether there are new tools available that will semi or fully automate something you currently do manually
  • If your family tree software is up-to-date

Create a structure that works for you

Whether you are new to tracing your ancestors or have been researching for many decades, updating your tools and processes will help your research skills.

I’m proof that your techniques can improve through planning and customising worksheets to fit your research.

Take the time to plan to see where you can save time and use each research session effectively.

Some things to consider to help your research skills:

  •  Write out every step of your processes to see where there is room for improvement. Are you taking seven steps when you only need four?
  • Try using Google Docs or Google Sheets to create checklists that are specific to your needs.
  • Use a stopwatch or kitchen timer to test if changes are making things faster or not.

And keep looking for tools and resources to discover new research skills that will help you find new ancestors.

LET ME ASK YOU A QUESTION:
What are your favourite resources that you use in your genealogy research?
Do you have any resources, tips or tricks that I didn’t mention?


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