Are you ready to get your family history and genealogy papers and processes organized? Those stacks of file folders, documents, and lists of to-do items aren’t going to help you make progress in your research until you have an organizational method that works for you. If you don’t know where to start, I have some ideas to help you!
This article is part three in my series on applying concepts from David Allen’s book Getting Things done: the art of stress-free productivity to my personal family history projects. Previously I wrote about capturing all of our projects in my article: Family History and Getting Things Done. Your first task was to write down every project for family history and genealogy that has been bouncing around in your head: repositories to visit, brick wall research, DNA testing, family histories, interviews, seminars to attend, webinars to view, etc. If you are like me, that was a long list!
Part 2 of the process was to clarify. In Family History & Getting Things Done Part 2: Clarify, I discussed the process: consider your commitment to each project, prioritize the projects, then choose the top project. Brainstorm ideas for that project, organize the steps, then identify the next action needed to make the project a reality.
Now it’s time to set up an organizational system that you trust to hold your projects and give you reminders about what needs to be done on any certain day. What good is a filing system or calendar that is never used? Have you tried a new tool but given up when it didn’t meet your needs? This is the time to revisit how you’re organizing your genealogy and make some decisions that will help you feel more productive.
Physical Filing System
Although our goal is to digitize all of our genealogy documents, we will still want to keep original documents in a physical filing system. Setting this up in a format that works with your brain is key. If you already have a system that works for you, don’t change. Simply take a look at it and see if there are any tweaks that you’d like to make.
For example, I settled on using a locality based filing system when I first started my research years ago. My files are organized by surname, then location. This works well for me because I often work in counties where I’m gathering all the records for a surname, not knowing exactly how everyone is connected. I keep separate folders for miscellaneous information and file those before the locality folders.
Here is a sampling of one of my surname sections. You’ll notice that I have separate folders for each state – those contain documents issued by the state government such as death certificates. The county folders contain marriage, probate, and other records issued on the county level. The correspondence folder contains letters and emails from family members. Family Group Sheets are those sent by cousins that I’ve chosen to keep in their original form even though I’ve added the information to my genealogy database.
Shults – Correspondence
Shults – Family Group Sheets
Shults – Alabama
Shults – Oklahoma
Shults – Oklahoma, Love County
Shults – Texas
Shults – Texas, Brown County
Other filing systems are a family line color coded system or a numbering system. I recommend you do an online search for various methods then see what appeals to you and your specific research needs. YouTube videos and webinars can walk you through exactly how to get set up.
You’ll need to decide if you want to use binders or file folders for your physical filing system. I personally love file folders. I have a small file cabinet in my office for my working folders. These are the folders for the current project I’m working on and are easily accessible from my desk. My larger collection of three boxes full of file folders is in another room.
Digital Filing System
Having your genealogy digital files set up on your computer is key in feeling in control of your genealogy research. Again there are various ways this can be done. I prefer to keep my files in Google Drive which backs up to my desktop computer and laptop. Anything I add from either computer syncs with Google Drive keeping all of my folders up to date.
For more help on using Google Drive, see Nicole’s article: Organize your Genealogy Research With Google Drive by Nicole Dyer at #RootsTech 2019. The article includes her slides and syllabus. The lecture was also recorded and shared as a podcast if you’d like to listen and follow the slides.
I use the following protocol for my digital filing system. It is different from my physical locality based filing system. Under the main folder of “Genealogy Research” I have surname folders.
Within each surname folder is a folder for each individual with that surname that I’ve researched and have documents for. I put the surname in all capital letters followed by the given names. Collateral relatives (those who married my relatives) are included in the folder with their spouse. Females are filed under their maiden names as they may have several married names in the course of their lives.
I also add folders for other digitized information for the Shults family such as letters that I’ve written to various family members seeking information.
Within each file folder are the documents, maps, timelines, research reports, research logs, etc. for that individual. I like to keep personal copies of the documents although they are also attached to the FamilySearch Family Tree and my Ancestry tree. When I’m researching it is much quicker to view my own files than wait for a website to load.
The next step of getting organized with your genealogy is choosing a software program that will hold your family tree. You may have your tree on FamilySearch or Ancestry, but you’ll have more control over the information if it is stored on your computer. There are many options available and you’ll need to do your own research to decide what is best for you.
I often use the analogy of car shopping. We don’t all drive the same car and we don’t purchase the first car we take for a test drive. The same is true for genealogical software. Research the options and think about what you need in a software program. Several of the companies offer free versions you can download and try. For more help, see my article 3 Reasons to Have personal Genealogy Software and How to Choose.
Besides historical documents for our ancestors, research logs, reports, etc. we also collect a multitude of reference material as genealogists. We attend conferences and institutes, watch webinars and presentations – all of which come with syllabi. We also read blog posts and other helpful articles online. How can we keep track of this information?
Setting up a system for reference material can include files in your physical and/or digital filing systems. I prefer to use Evernote because of it’s tagging and search capabilities. For example, if i’m working on a project in Louisiana and have a question about the notary system, I can do a quick search and find the article that I saved. If I’m doing land research and need to reference information on the Homestead Act, I can quickly find that. Evernote has been invaluable in working quickly and in helping me keep my reference material organized. See “Create Your Own Genealogy Reference Center with Evernote” for ideas on how to set it up.
Family History Email
Working on our family history and genealogy can generate a lot of email. We send messages back and forth to repositories, DNA matches, and relatives requesting and receiving information. Having a system for dealing with email can free you from the dreaded inbox of hundreds of messages. I use Gmail and have a series of labels set up to organize my email. One of those labels is Family History. Under that label I have sub-folders for each surname I’m researching as well as any repository or other related topic.
As recommended by David Allen in Getting Things Done, I have created two email folders titled !Action and !Waiting that have changed my life. Adding a character such as ! or @ or # moves it to the top of your folders for easy access.
Before creating these folders, I would keep any email that I needed to answer in my Inbox. Just looking at that list would overwhelm me. Now my goal is to get my Inbox to zero each day. If I can deal with an email in two minutes or less, I do it. Otherwise it gets moved to !Action or !Waiting. Current items in my !Action folder include emails from an author for an upcoming blog post, an email from a colleague about a new DNA feature to try, and an email from APG (Association of Professional Genealogists) about purchasing the package of 12 recordings from the latest conference. These are all items I need to take some action for and are on my task list. The emails contain links and information on the task that I’ll need.
My !Waiting folder has my flight booking for an upcoming trip, an email from a client who is sending a check and signed contract, and an email from a DNA match who I’m hoping will upload results to GEDMatch. These are items that are not actionable right now, but I want to keep on my radar. I can send a reminder email to my DNA match. When my trip comes around I have the flight info easily available. If the check doesn’t come in the mail, I can follow up with the client. Once these items are taken care of I can delete the email.
What about those emails concerning family history and genealogy that you want to archive outside of email sub-folders? I suggest creating a Google Doc or other document in your favorite word processor, then copying and pasting the email into the document. File it in your digital file folder for that surname or ancestor. With each email include the sender and date in bold as well as your responses. One document could hold several emails about a subject. Be sure to give it a descriptive file name such as: 2019_email_William Huston Shults_from Nicole Dyer. As with any document that you save, determining and following a naming protocol will keep your files neat and organized.
Once you have your filing systems organized, have genealogy software to track your family, and have a system for organizing reference material, what’s next? Figuring out how to organize those projects that you captured and clarified in steps 1 and 2. Some simple tools can help us to do this.
Whether you’re using a planner, wall calendar, or an app like Google Calendar, making it work for you is key. I use Google Calendar because it’s available on all my devices. If I’m at a meeting, I can pull out my phone and add a key date. If I’m working at my desk, I can easily scan the week for must do’s. I can have various calendars such as events just for me and those for other members of my family. I can view the calendar in day, week, month, year, schedule, or 4 days mode. The flexibility is amazing. I toggle back and forth between the various modes – seeing what needs to be done today and what is coming up.
To make your calendar work for you in getting your family history done, here are some ideas:
-Use it for items that need to be scheduled on a specific day and place such as appointments with a repository, webinars, or conferences.
-Put a reminder on a day that you need to check back with a repository, a DNA match, or other person that you’ve previously contacted about your genealogy research.
-Schedule a week to do that research project that you never seem to get around to – then do it.
To keep on top of our genealogy and family history projects, we need to keep our lists current. In the past I’ve made lists in notebooks, in a word processor, on sticky notes, and on scraps of paper. Since discovering Google Keep, I know have one place to keep all of my project lists. I have lists for genealogy research, genealogy education, family history projects, and more.
If I’m researching and following my research plan, I don’t want to go off chasing bright shiny objects, so I’ll put a virtual sticky note in Google Keep to remind me of that mini-project such as order a record or view some newspaper articles.
The image below shows the notes I currently have pinned to the top of my genealogy research folder in Google Keep. I can add links to web pages such as the newspaper listing in the Georgia Historic Newspapers website for John Royston. I discovered this source while working on a locality guide, but didn’t want to get sidetracked, so I made a note in Google Keep instead.
For more ideas on how to set up and use Google Keep, see “Boost your Genealogy Productivity with Google Keep.”
Next Action Lists
I love the concept from Getting Things Done known as next actions. Often we don’t get started on a large project because we’re overwhelmed. Determining the next action can ease us into the project and energize us. Having a central list for next actions is helpful in deciding what to do each day. Some days I have to work on specific projects, but other days I can choose. Scanning my next action lists I can choose something that I’d like to work on that day.
My favorite place to keep my next action lists is in the “My Tasks” section of my Google Calendar. I can easily add a task and check it off when completed.
Gmail has an icon for Google Calendar, Task List, and Google Keep on the right of the screen. Clicking on each icon allows you to add or delete items.
I have to admit, I love the seamless way these various tools work together. If you’re not a Google user, there are hundreds of apps available that you can use to get organized. I encourage you to experiment and find the ones that work the best for you.
You’ll make progress on your genealogy and family history once you have a place to keep your projects, a way to schedule them, and a list of next actions.
Best of luck in getting organized!