7 Family History Activities for When You Can’t Focus

Genealogy is something that countless people find enjoyable and rewarding. In this time of crisis, it’s natural to turn to it… but many of us have found ourselves unable to concentrate. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. Here are 7 family history activities that we can do, even when we can’t focus.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 45

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 16 minutes.


It can feel frustrating, even discouraging, to have time on your hands but an inability to focus on research. After all, haven’t many of us joked, “Oh if only I had all day where I could sit at home and work on my genealogy…” Many of us now have that time, due to stay-at-home orders, but it certainly isn’t what we envisioned. But even though we might not be able to concentrate to do some in-depth research, we can still do meaningful and enjoyable family history activities.

1. Label Some Photographs

You know you need to do this (or maybe I’m just projecting). Grab a handful of photos and a soft pencil or archivally safe pen and label the back of the photo with the who-what-when-where-and-why. Record as much as you know about that image. Not only is this incredibly important in our family history, but it’s a fun activity, too!

2. Scan Some Photographs and Documents

Now that you have some photos labeled, get out the scanner, camera, or your smartphone, and make a digital copy. I have a stack of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while they were courting. Now would be the perfect time for me to digitize those.

3. Share With Family

Social distancing doesn’t mean no communication. Share some of those photos and documents with your family via email, Facebook, or even text. Not only does it get a copy of that image in another place (following the “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe” principle), but it can also spark dialogue… which brings us to our next activity…

4. Interview Family Members and Share Stories

Humans are built for stories, and those stories are even more important in times of distress. Photos are a great way to spark conversation. They don’t even have to be old photos of our ancestors. Photos of family reunions or holidays can be a great starting point for sharing stories. Remember: We are all a part of our own family histories. We need to get our stories out there, too!

Here are some resources for gathering stories:

5. Journal Your Experience During the Pandemic

I’ll be honest — I hoard notebooks and journals. I don’t necessarily write in all of the ones that I buy, but I have quite a collection. Since things started getting crazy a few weeks ago, I started a journal to record my experience. It serves two purposes. If it’s ever discovered by a descendant years from now, they’ll have an idea of what this time was like. But it’s also been cathartic to write in it.

I’ve had trouble in the past keeping going with a journal, but I’ve been consistent this time. Two things that have helped me: I don’t force myself to write every day (which, ironically, has made me feel more free to write almost every day!) and I don’t feel the need to follow a set format. Some days are pages long, while other days are only a couple of sentences. I write down my experiences, my observations, and my feelings. As I said, it has been quite cathartic.

6. Index Records for FamilySearch

Did you know that many of the records that you use on FamilySearch were indexed by volunteers—people just like you and me. You can help right from home! FamilySearch has indexing projects for record sets around the world. (In fact, they’re always looking for people who can read languages other than English. But don’t worry, there are plenty of English-language records that you can work on, too.) You can find tutorials and get started on the FamilySearch Indexing website.

The batches are small, so you can make progress right away. I’ve been an indexer for quite some time. You might be amazed at how enjoyable it is!

7. Use the WANDER Method

What about when we really want to research? How can we stay focused then?

We genealogists sometimes joke about falling into rabbit holes in our research. Somehow, we find ourselves researching our 3rd-cousin’s grandfather’s next-door-neighbor’s son-in-law. How did we get there?!

When we want to do research, it’s always a good idea to be focused, and that’s especially true when our ability to concentrate is at a premium. Having a good research method is key.

The WANDER Method is a way of viewing the research process to help keep you focused and on track. The steps are:

  • W – What do you want to find?
  • A – Analyze what you already have
  • N – Note what is missing
  • D – Discover new records
  • E – Evaluate everything
  • R – Repeat as necessary

That first step – what do you want to find — by itself can help you stay focused. (You can learn more about the WANDER Method here.)

This is a confusing, stressful time we’re in. Fortunately, there are still things we can do to stay engaged with the family history that we love. How are you working on your genealogy right now?


Posted: April 2, 2020.

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  • Thank you for the list!

    I have been indexing on Family Search and the National Archives. While on NARA, I found records of my grandfather’s cousin’s Air Force Medals he received in WWII. I hope to find my grandfather’s someday (they only have the Air Force currently).

    I have also been trying to get some of my photo books done on Shutterfly so there will be some of my history to pass down! Ha! (I am over-run with pictures – it’s too easy to take them now.)

    I am also taking this time to clean up my sources on RootsMagic since it’s more complex than PAF was (where I transferred my information from).

    These things can be done here and there, so no worries if they aren’t finished.

  • I have been keeping a daily time line for almost a whole month of my life at the Normandy Campus here in Rocky River, Ohio. As a former medical worker, I notice a lot of things going on. We are all safe (so Far) thank you to our wonderful staff. God Bless every one of them as they are giving to us such good service. This Time Line will go to my family so that younger people will have a look at the worst time in my life here on earth at 76 years of age. BETTY

  • Great ideas on this podcast, thank you! Another activity to add may be to volunteer to translate gravestones on BillionGraves.com ! It is quite easy and you link the information to Family Search – a win win!

  • Thanks for this post. I’ve been struggling to get back to my research since my dad died, almost 10 years ago. Not to long after dad died, my mother started having her own set of issues and has tested positive for COVID after her most recent stay at the hospital. Due to testing positive for COVID she is now in one of the worst nursing homes in our area (places that take COVID positive patients are limited).

    I’ve been trying to get back to my genealogy as it takes my mind off of things but it’s still hard to get to during these crazy hectic times of COVID. Just doing some of these little thing will surely help.

    One more that I would add to the list, which is actually helping me is starting to do presentations, via ZOOM, to our local chapter of AAHGS. Did my first one at the end of October, doing another in February and another in May. Even though the topics I’m doing aren’t specifically about my research but doing them at least forces me to dig out my research.

  • I have been making photo books. One was to a dear little girl who calls me her extra grandma. I chronicled how we met her mom 31 years ago and our continued friendship and interactions with our families since. To was about 50 pages
    Another was on the 29 surgical missions I have been on with my thoughts and some photos for my grandkids so they will an idea of some of the things in my life

  • I am doing 14 days of home isolation after a brief visit to an area that was deemed high risk for COVID transmission. I decided to use this time to catch up on your podcasts that I have downloaded but rarely have the chance to listen to. I feel more hopeful that any little task I complete is helping me to keep growing my family tree and tell the stories of my ancestors.

  • Very timely, Amy! I’ve only just finished a long project for a woman who is dying of cancer – and had all her well-researched info in binders. Now that that project is completed, I’m blankly looking at my family tree wondering who to pick next to write in my genealogy blog, or who to pick next [or family] to research. Absolutely stymied. Thanks for the tips.