How to Stay Focused in Your Genealogy Research

Genealogy research is filled with distractions. There are so many cool things to explore about our family history that it’s easy to fall into a research rabbit hole. Fortunately, there’s a simple thing you can do to get focused and make more discoveries.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 46

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: 11 minutes.


Lately, many of us (myself included) are having some difficulty focusing on research. But let’s be honest with ourselves—focusing has long been a stumbling block for our research. (How many times have you gone “down a rabbit hole”?! I’ve lost count how many times I’ve done that!)

My Best Tip for Staying Focused When Researching

In my episode “7 Family History Activities When You Can’t Focus,” I suggested “Use the WANDER Method” as a way you can get more accomplished. The WANDER Method is how I describe the genealogy research process.

The W in WANDER—What Do You Want to Find?—is not only the first step in the process, it’s also my best tip for staying focused.

Before you start to research, ask the question. What is it you’re looking for? Do you want to find Elizabeth’s maiden name? Do you want to find when Martha died? Do you want to prove George served in the Civil War?

How Asking a Question Helps You to Focus

Research is much like a road trip. I can get in my car and drive around, taking whatever road seems interesting. I can have some fun doing that, but I have no idea where I’ll end up. On the other hand, I can take a road trip with a destination in mind. If I go from my house and I want to head to Fort Wayne, I know what roads will take me there. Sure, I can still take a detour to visit a random cemetery, but I’ll know what road I need to get back on to get to my destination.

In my research, if I know what my destination is—what it is I want to find—then I can focus on the resources that are most likely to give me the answers. If I go into a research session wanting to prove whether or not George served in the Civil War, it’s easier for me to ignore the tempting resources about the Revolutionary War or World War II.

Be Specific

I have found that the more specific my question is, the easier it is for me to focus. Asking “What about everything about George’s life” isn’t going to help very much; it’s too broad of a question.

One of my ancestors is Matilda Debolt Skinner Crossen Brown McFillen. I only have death information for her first husband. Rather than asking, “When did all of Matilda’s husbands die?” a better question would be, “When did Samuel Crossen die?”

Other Benefits of Asking a Good Question

Asking a good research question has benefits beyond aiding in focus. It can help you get better answers when you’re at a library, archive, or on social media. Almost daily, I see someone on Facebook posting a “question” which is paragraphs long and full of biographical detail… but there isn’t a question. People respond, but who knows if they’re actually helping the person, because it isn’t clear what it is they’re really looking for.

Getting into the habit of starting with a question will also make you a better researcher. “What do you want to find” is the first part of the WANDER Method. The second is “Analyze what you already have.” How can do an analysis if you don’t know what it is you’re looking for?

Getting into the habit of asking a question at the start has been the single best thing that has helped me in my research. I don’t totally avoid rabbit holes, but it is much easier for me to get back on track when I do.


Posted: April 23, 2020.

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  • Good morning Amy, Yes, rabbit holes are so seductive!! My particularly slippery slope is an email contact from a person who sees I’ve got someone in my blog post or my tree that is one of their direct ancestors. But since I research as far and as wide as possible [siblings & siblings’ family up and down 1-2 generations] sometimes that person who is common to me and to the contact is rather distant and of peripheral interest to me. To be nice, I check again, and see if my research is up to date since more items are being digitized or available online free from behind a paywall, and before I know it I’m three hours later realizing I’m doing the contact’s research, not mine!! It’s fun, interesting, but oh-not-what-I-wanted to be working on. Even worse these days as I find myself a bit fuzzy-minded with the same 4 walls around me since self-isolation, finding it difficult to even do the #52Ancestors research/posts. Cheers, Celia

  • My real problem is when checking for new records on tasks I have and finding only the same wrong records and hoping to find some clue in some other place. It’s way too easy to get distracted when up against many brick walls that just don’t change. Of course having a long list of particulars to find doesn’t help either.

  • Hello Amy. You are absolutely correct. I stopped obsessing about brick walls, took a break over the holidays and started looking at other family trees in order to verify information. Things have been falling into place ever since.

  • Not sure if this is the right place to ask this question. Facebook has a group called Kentucky Ancestors. How reliable is information coming from people with the same family names that I am researching or would this be another rabbit hole because I wouldn’t have proof documents?