Plan Your Genealogy Goals

Genealogy is fraught with bright, shiny objects daring you to chase them around the internet. Establishing your goals for each year ensures you stay on track. No matter where you are in your research adventure, these tips will help you plan and achieve your goals more effectively.

Download my FREE Genealogy Goals Planning Companion to follow as you read along. 

Set Your Long-Term Vision

Vision-based planning links the future to the present. Defining your vision – or your “why” – will guide your genealogy journey for the next few years. Think of vision as a description of the future that you’d like to achieve with your family history work. 

Consider why you care about compiling your family history. Each of us has different motivations behind our interest in genealogy. For me, I love the research process. Like a crime detective, analyzing clues, connecting people, and solving mysteries satisfies the intellectual part of my brain. Writing about these adventures then fulfills my creative need. 

My vision is to write my comprehensive ancestral story as a published family history book. This statement defines the critical compass point which directs my goals toward an ultimate destination. I’ve learned that a strong vision statement not only synchronizes my efforts, but inspires me to continue on the path even when I encounter challenges and roadblocks along the way.

Assess Your Current Situation

Before you can possibly arrive at your destination, you must establish your starting position. What are you currently doing and how does it relate to your vision? In order to make your vision a reality, determine what is preventing you from being at your destination today. 

Let’s explore some areas that may be slowing you down and brainstorm a list of what you need.

    • Research – Adding the wrong people to your tree? What evidence is reliable and what isn’t? 
    • Organization – Documents and photos scattered everywhere? How do you improve your system?
    • Writing – Looking for meaning in all of the notes and forms? How do you share your stories? 
    • Knowledge and Skills – Hitting too many brick walls? What education or support might help? 
    • Tools and Resources – Struggling with outdated software? What tools would ease your process? 

When I considered these areas, I found several gaps that I wanted to bridge. First, I realized that I needed to verify and advance the research for the Italian branch of my tree. Then, when I wanted to study an immigration photo of my great grandparents’ family, I spent over an hour searching for it. Without a writing process, I had little to share when relatives asked me how research was going. From this honest assessment, I created my list of needs.  

Got your needs? Great! Now let’s turn it into a plan.

Prioritize Your Opportunities

As the saying goes, what’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same is true for family history research. Prioritizing helps to pinpoint the focus of your plan so you don’t spread yourself too thin. 

After assessing my current situation, I was left with twelve needs, but not all of them were critical to my vision. I ran them through my priority filter to determine three top needs I should resolve to move closer to that published family history book. I converted my crucial needs into priorities for the year: 

    1. Gain ground with my Italian ancestors
    2. Organize those photos (finally!)
    3. Up my writing game 

Once I narrowed all of my needs into these focused opportunities, I felt I finally had control of what I was doing – instead of my research being in control of me. My book took its first breath.


Write SMART Goals 

People who write down their goals are more successful in achieving them than people who don’t. The mere process of writing encodes that information into your memory making your goal much easier to recall. 

Now let’s transform these opportunities into goals that will keep us engaged and on track. 

Rewrite each one into a simple one-line statement that follows the SMART criteria:

    • Specific – Your goal must be clear, well-defined and unambiguous. A friend reading your goal would understand exactly what you intend to achieve. 
    • Measurable – Add a level of precision to your goal that indicates how much or to what degree you’re targeting for success. 
    • Attainable – Set yourself up for success. Be realistic with what you can accomplish in a year – especially in light of everything else you want to do. Slice your goals into bite-sized pieces that still move the meter. We often overestimate what can be done in one year, and we often underestimate what can be done in five years.
    • Relevant – Make your goals meaningful to you and to what you want to achieve. Each goal should align with one or more of the opportunities you’ve set, and ultimately focus on your vision.
    • Time-bound – Each goal should have a deadline, a target date, a line in the sand that encourages your consistent attention.

I turned my critical opportunities into these three SMART goals:

    1. Verify each direct ancestor on my Italian branch from generations 3 – 5 by Dec 31.
    2. Organize 100 family photos into an archival album by my July family reunion.
    3. Write a biographical sketch for one direct ancestor to publish in a monthly blog Feb – Dec.

The physical artifact you produce by writing down your goals will serve as a regular reminder of your intent. Further, now you can share your goals with others and feel accountable for achieving them. 

We have goals, now what? Next is the fun part – defining your actions!

Create Your Roadmap

A goal without action is just a dream. If SMART goals indicate what you want to achieve, then the roadmap represents how you intend to get there. Therefore, the roadmap is your action plan, the framework of tasks you want to accomplish to complete the overall goal. 

When I defined my roadmap, I began each task with a verb to ensure my plan stayed action-oriented. For example, I declared what I’m doing with photos: “select photos,” “scan photos,” or “label photos.” I kept tasks high-level to avoid a laundry list of non-value actions. I also found that using check boxes shaped as bullets provided a handy mechanism to check off tasks to completion. As a result my mantra became: The roadmap should work for me – not me work for it. 

My final step was to carefully spread the actions across the year. While I planned tasks for each month, I tried to balance the work across my three SMART goals.

For instance, here’s part of my plan.

SMART Goal: Organize 100 family photos into an archival album to share at July’s family reunion.

Tasks to accomplish in January:

  • Select photos
  • Prep photos for scanning
  • Purchase archival album

Tasks to accomplish in February:

  • Scan 25 photos
  • Label scanned photos
  • Sequence scanned photos

I’ve used the same goals template for years, tried and true. It’s at my desk, printed and ready for quick reference. Moreover, the act of checking off each completed action keeps me going and psyched to work on the next one. Download our free editable Goals At-A-Glance Template and see if it works for you. Here, you also see my entire plan as an example.



Author Melanie Nelson founded MelNel Genealogy to help others uncover their past and create memorable family experiences. Melanie is a frequent contributor to Florida Genealogical Society - Tampa and Kerry Experience Tours blogs. For assistance researching your own family’s genealogy or planning the ultimate heritage travel adventure, contact us. We are happy to help! 



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