How to Avoid Genealogy Overwhelm

So many ancestors; so little time. With the number of ancestors doubling with each generation, it doesn’t take too long for it to feel a bit much. Add to the mix all of the different types of things you want to find and the projects you want to complete and you have a recipe for genealogy overwhelm. Fortunately, there are some ways to dial back the stress.Β 

Set a Goal

Ok, stop laughing. “Genealogy” and “focus” are not mutually exclusive. Setting a goal can help you stay focused. I’ve written before about SMART genealogy goalsΒ and I remain a firm believer in how they can help us stay on track. Rather than saying, “I’m going to do genealogy tonight,” say “I’m going to look for George Debolt’s parents.” Actually say it. It will plant the seed as to the purpose of your activities.

Focus on a Branch, Not the Whole Tree

Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of families to research is common, especially when you start a new project. I recently felt that way when I started researching my daughter’s fiance’s family tree. (So many new families in new locations!) Finally, I had to decide which line I was going to concentrate on first. The other lines would just have to wait. Doing this has made my research more effective, as it allowed me the ability to dive deeper on this line and make more discoveries than I would have otherwise.

(Start to) Organize

Keeping all of your genealogy stuff organized is a neverending task and it’s super easy to fall behind. Piles of files and stacks of books are enough to stress out any family historian. Though filing isn’t the most exciting part of genealogy, we do need to do it, whether we’re talking about paper files or digital files.

It’s something that I struggle with. Professional organizer and genealogist Janine Adams schedules time in the morning for her research, even if it’s just 15 minutes. We could take her same approach with going through all those stacks of paper. Set a timer for 15 minutes and start to attack the pile. You won’t get the whole room done at once, but every little bit helps.

Remember: It’s a Journey. Your Journey.

Family history is inherently personal. There are many paths that we can take with it. It’s important to remember that your genealogy journey doesn’t have to be like your friend’s journey. Maybe your friend is researching her in-law’s family. You don’t have to research yours if you don’t want to. Maybe another friend is putting together family history videos. If video isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. Find your own “thing.”

What makes you feel overwhelmed in your genealogy? Let’s talk about it.

How to Avoid Genealogy Overwhelm

It's easy to feel overwhelmed in genealogy research. Here are some ways to de-stress your family history activities.

Posted: August 2, 2016.

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    • That’s one of those “good problems to have.” One the one hand, there are so many opportunities available to us, but there are still only so many hours in the day. (Last I checked, it was 24 πŸ˜‰ It’s why setting a goal for our research is so important. If I’m focusing on a problem in Ohio, I can pass on the German stuff (for now). It’ll still be there when I’m ready to learn more about it. (But believe me, I know how hard it is to pass these things up!)

    • After being away from researching for 20 years I attended a Genealogy Research Institute of Pittsburgh session in July. I suggest you check on their offerings.

  • I have reached the stage where I must do something with all these dead family and friends, so those who do want to know more can do so, which seems to mean going back to more paper production. My on-line alone has exceeded the Apple iCloud storage limit for my tablet–ugh, so I continually have to transfer personal photos to my PC.
    I am now getting photographs from family, to reproduce for them, since I have many of our families old albums anyway.
    I must now live another 10 yrs, at least, to get decisions made, and organize all these treasures, again! And, being newly retired, I want to learn more.

      • Amen to that! Everyone can learn more no matter how old they are….just keep learning, it keeps Alzheimer’s away and brings family closer when you dig into Family History plus there is a great deal of joy in knowing the particulars about one’s ancestors and their pasts.

  • Were you listening to my thoughts as I was driving to work this morning Amy? How timely that you published this article, because I was feeling overwhelmed thinking about all the branches I’d love to work on. Actually, I was feeling like I wish I could quit my job and not drive to work, so I would have more time to work on all the branches of my family tree.

  • This is definitely me – so much to do and so little time…I have started with goals and am working with that…we’ll see. Thanks for the great tips!!

  • Amy. Funny you should write about this today. I was driving to the gym today and thinking about writing a blog post about being overwhelmed. This is how I’m feeling right now. So much information from many different branches coming at me. That’s a good thing, but I have trouble focusing. Yikes! Thanks for reading my mind. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will send my readers over here. You pretty much covered what I was thinking.

  • My problem is being overwhelmed with frustration. I have hit brick walls on both my father’s family and my mother’s family. I keep searching and find nothing – I must be doing something wrong. I don’t drive, and I live in a suburban area so on-line research is all I can do. That worked fine until I encountered one side of the family who immigrated from Europe – anything before their arrival in America is a complete blank. The other side of the family seems to have been here a very long time but were poor farmers with little education – I trace one group back to the 1775 date range, but the other only until 1816. Can find nothing more. How do I accept that this is it – I’m not going to find anything else. Very frustrated, disappointed, and unwilling to call it quits, causing me to spend untold hours searching and researching areas that I’ve looked at numerous times. Aaaaagggghhhh!

    • It is certainly frustrating when we hit brick walls on multiple lines. I wouldn’t give up hope, even if you can only do online research. It is mind-boggling how much information is being added every week. Not just Ancestry, FamilySearch, and the other “big” sites, but also on the websites of libraries, archives, genealogical and historical societies. Keep looking!

      With your European brick wall, my advice would be to go back and look at everything you have for the immigrant ancestor and his family here in the States. Then ask yourself, “What else can I look for regarding that ancestor when he was here in the US?” Church records, cemetery records, court records, land records, military, obituaries (in multiple newspapers), etc. Those records here in the US can give us the clues we need to be successful with our European research. Then ask yourself, “What else can I look for here in the US for the other family members?” The records of your ancestor might not have the answer, but the records of his sibling might.

      Keep the faith, Pat, and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Decide which problem you want to solve first and focus on that. You can do it!

  • Amy – You read my mind. I was on my way to the gym yesterday, thinking about this very subject. I thought, why not write a blog post? Then I saw yours and thought, well, Amy has done a wonderful job, so let’s just refer people to her post for ways to help us focus.
    That’s just what I’ve done in my blog post today and here’s the link
    Thank you for reading my mind.

  • I’ve only recently had the opportunity to connect with your site; I find your writings very interesting and helpful. Just as Pat H. Said above, I’ve hit a wall with my Romanian grandparent’s family. I also became the keeper of all the photos and documents that my paternal grandparents and my parents left behind. There are also thousands (no exaggeration) of my own immediate family to sort through. Most photos from my grandparents are not annotated or are written in Romanian; many appear to be from the turn of the century or early 1900’s. My mother’s family is very well documented, for generations. I may soon have an opportunity to have some of the Romanian translated; fingers crossed. Please continue these helpful posts Amy and thank you!

    • That is so kind of you to say, Michele. I’m very glad that you’ve found my site to be helpful.

      What you have with those photos and documents is nothing short of a treasure! Definitely overwhelming, but oh so worth it. Good luck with the translations!

  • Thank you! We moved in March and I am feeling very overwhelmed by unpacking and setting up my genealogy files. We bought a smaller house so finding room for everything has not been easy. I am trying to get an area set up but I look at what I need to do and just shut the door. So glad I am not alone.

    • You are definitely not alone! Don’t keep shutting the door. Accept that you won’t get it organized all at once and then set a few minutes — maybe a half hour — to tackle one thing. I’ve noticed that when I’m trying to organize something massive like that, I get burned out and frustrated when I try to do a marathon session. (“I will get this done this weekend!”) But if I work on it a little at a time and have small victories, it keeps me motivated to keep working on it. Good luck!

  • When I began this enterprise I did a little thinking, and with the premise of having but one life to live, decided to focus on ancestry up to those who crossed the pond rather than descendants of one distant known couple.

    That premise collapsed when I began to flesh out the families with such elements as estate and land records and more of a sense of neighborhoods and associates πŸ™‚

    So I have become more interested in solving some families’ puzzles, with no absolute imperative to do so. I am having more fun, and learning techniques and methods more than I had any idea of when I started out.

    The learning has become inspirational, and always recommended as a “time out” possibility.

  • Wow! You’ve “hit the nail on the head” in my life right now! When I’m overwhelmed I have the tendency to just do nothing but follow those pesky “rabbit trails”. There are several piles of papers in my office and it’s looking like a “hoarders room”. And all those wonderful apps to explore out there are something overwhelming for me as well…I know I just can’t use all of them! Going to start a list of specific things this a.m. and try to tackle them one by one. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • I really look forward , for these interesting articles, from my friend. One of my many surnames last name was ” Crow”, however, this name is spelled Crowell. So far that name has not been revealed. In the meant time I keep back tracking , my paternal fathers name was Cyrus Philip Tobey, he was married 2 times and had children from both spouses. My Dad was Perry Kenneth Tobey, who was the oldest child of the second marriage, and his half brother , Rex Vernon Tobey came to live with his family and step- mother. I have been searching for more information @ Cyrus in both of his marriages. In some of my information. Someone made a statement , that a male Tobey had a farm in Central Lake , Antrim, Michigan. I have access to a very brief remark @ Land —-. There was no person’s name mentioned. Unfortunately, I know I need to focus on other information @ other helpful information. May you have a Blessed day.

  • Thank you for this post. I needed to read this tonight. I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed lately and need the inspiration and encouragement πŸ™‚

  • Great advice! I bet every genealogist has felt overwhelmed at one point or another. I know I feel overwhelmed by my genealogy research on a regular basis! Thanks for the mention, too.

  • I’ve done my research back as far as I can, for now. I’ve been working forward from my 3rd and 4th great grandfathers/mothers, finding all of their descendants. It’s overwhelming at times. I use familysearch and ancestry which provides a starting point but proving all those links can be difficult. The good thing is that my ancestors came from England, mostly, and mostly came in the 1600 and 1700s, so my research is all in America, for now. As I’ve been working on this, I have realized that Find-a-Grave is a great resource but the families are often not connected. My next goal is to connect all my family in Find-a-Grave. I’m anxious to start on that but am determined to finish what I am currently doing. I want more hours in the day.