Are you drowning in a mountain of inherited genealogy? Do you have photos to scan and organize? Would you like to write histories of all your ancestors? Are there brick walls to break down? Do you have a life outside of family history and genealogy? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then you might be feeling overwhelmed with all you need to do. I recently discovered David Allen’s book, Getting Things done: the art of stress-free productivity and for the next few months am going to share with you applications from the book for how to get your family history under control. (The links to the book are affiliate links. If you click the link and make a purchase, we receive a commission. Thank you for your support!)
When a friend recommended Getting Things Done and even gave me a copy, I spent the next several weeks carefully reading the book and implementing the processes described by Allen in my work. Systems for accomplishing tasks as a professional genealogist, author, speaker, and podcaster are set up and running smoothly.
What is not running so smoothly are my personal family history and genealogy projects. I set up a fabulous paper filing system based on locality when I started my research in 2003 but I haven’t yet scanned the contents and uploaded to my digital filing system. My mother has given me more genealogy and paper to sort through and I have a list of projects to tackle. I also have empty spaces on my pedigree chart, and did I mention DNA? I have a few thousand DNA matches to sort through.
I realized it was time to return to Getting Things Done this time with a focus on productivity for my personal family history and genealogy. Working through the book again, I’ll write several articles capturing the ideas from the book and give them a family history application. If you’d like to follow along, I’d welcome your company in the journey.
Let’s begin with an overview of Allen’s system. I like to know what I’m getting into before I fully commit and you might be the same. Chapter 1 of Getting Things Done gives three key objectives that guide the entire approach. (1)
Capturing all the things that might need to get done or have usefulness for you – now, later, someday, big, little, or in between – in a logical and trusted system outside your and head and off your mind.
Directing yourself to make front-end decisions about all of the “inputs” you let into your life so that you will always have a workable inventory of “next actions”.
Curating and coordinating all of that content, utilizing the recognition of the multiple levels of commitments with yourself and others you will have at play, at any point in time.
Let’s take a look at each of these objectives and how they apply to our family history.
I know that sometimes just thinking of all I need to do overwhelms me and so I don’t do anything. The first thing to do then is to get all of our projects and “to do” items out of our head and recorded somewhere. This could be a physical notebook or an electronic document. What could this include? Here is a small sampling from my list and you might have similar items.
– Revisit my earlier research writing a report/history for each ancestor and verifying the generational links.
– Convert my paper files to digital files.
– Use DNA Painter to paint my DNA matches and identify a common ancestor.
– Finish the research on Benjamin Cox to solidify him as my 5th great grandfather.
Clarifying what to do with all those things and making decisions about what needs to happen next in any given project at any given time is the next step. We can’t do all of our projects at once, which is why we need to clarify an order of importance. We need to decide when and how we’ll get to our projects. If you’re planning a two-week trip to Europe in the next month, now would not be the time to get started on a huge filing project. But maybe you could squeeze in a mini research project working 30 minutes a day to figure out something that’s been nagging at you.
I work well with deadlines, so if I want to get a finished product completed, I often decide to use that as a gift. For example, I decided to create a photo book of a memorable family reunion and knew if I tied it to a Christmas gift for my mother, I’d actually get it done.
Part of the process is clarifying our intentions by deciding on the next action. How often have you procrastinated starting a filing project because you don’t have a file box or cabinet? The next action would be to buy a file box or cabinet and some file folders. Once that is done, your next action would be to create a filing system, then to tackle the pile of papers.
Thinking of projects in terms of next actions has been revolutionary in my professional work. Often the next action is simply to send an email to a client or choose a design for a PowerPoint presentation. Once that step is taken, I can move forward and make progress.
Rather than letting feelings of “too much to do” overwhelm us, we can clarify and prioritize our projects and determine next actions.
Finally, we need to create some organizing systems that make sense for us and learn to manage our time so we can tackle our projects without disrupting our entire life.
As genealogists, this could be where we decide what genealogy software we’ll use to track our research. We might need to choose a physical or digital filing systems. Perhaps we have tools we’re using that are outdated and we need to take a hard look at our processes. We all have different organizing needs and approaches. The important thing is to take the time to choose the systems and processes that work for us.
The 1st Task: Capture
If you’d like to join me on this journey, your task for the next month is to capture the various family history and genealogy stuff that comes into your world. This is anything that you need or want to do in the future such as research projects, papers to organize, people to interview, education opportunities, books to write, etc. These can be short term or long term. Big or small. If it comes to mind, write it down. Capture every item on paper or digitally. Carry around a notebook. Leave yourself voice notes. Start a Google doc.
Determine one central place to gather your thoughts and get them recorded. Next up, I’ll give you ideas about clarifying and next actions.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) David Allen Getting Things done the art of stress-free productivity, revised ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 4.
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