Research plans, logs and to-do lists: What’s a genealogist to do?

Research plans, to-do lists, research goals and project plans — what’s the difference, and what’s in a name?

This week’s Genealogy Do-Over topic of “setting research goals,” left me grappling with what the difference was between:

  • Research Plans
  • Project Plans
  • To-Do Lists
  • Research Goals

And, how these work together with a research log, and other tracking logs.

No, I don’t have the definitive answers to these questions, yet. But, I have given it some thought and cast my net to the Interwebs to see how others approach these questions and deal with the data these things will certainly produce. I’ve included several helpful links below.


Genealogy research is personal. Though we can learn much from each other, ultimately each of us needs to find methods that work for us and our own unique research style. That said, I’ve come up with some thoughts that may help clarify how these things differ and what the role of each may be in my family history research. There’s no one right way to do this. Instead, there are many good ways and some not so good, which I’ve already tried. 😉

After digging through my old paper research, I realized I had been doing some of these things — unintentionally and sporadically. I had no formal research plan, to-do list or research goals. But, periodically, I would jot things down that I needed to do, and kept rough analysis notes.

To-do lists — the old way.
To-do lists — the old way.

Since the “Do-Over” will look at project plans in Week 4, I will leave that one out. However, I’ve created a new overarching category called “Overall Plan.” It may turn out that this is the same as the “Project Plan.”

Personally, I need to see tasks and goals nested into a hierarchy. I want to know how individual items fit into my big picture goals / plans / projects.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • Overall Plan — This is my big picture goal. It has many sub-goals and components. An example would be: Starting with my generation, create a 4-generation printed family history report, complete with narrative, documents and images — to share with family.
  • Research Goal — This is a specific point I will need to prove, such as: Prove birth date and location for John Smith.
    • There will be many such goals in my Overall Plan.
  • Research Plan — The research plan is specific to a given research goal. It documents how I will find and analyze records to prove my research goal, in this case, John Smith’s birth date and location.
    • It will include a list of repositories and records that may exist for this individual.
    • After data is collected, it will need to be analyzed and interpreted.
  • To-Do List — My to-do list will be overarching. It will incorporate tasks generated by multiple research plans, relative to several specific research goals. Thus, it may include several records requests for different individuals and other diverse tasks.
    • I like the concept of an overarching to-do list because it will help me better coordinate research attempts. If I’m at a repository, I can gather records on several individuals, that may apply to multiple research goals.
My data analysis was informal and inefficient. I had no "log," and didn't follow-up on problems identified.
My data analysis was informal and inefficient. I had no “log,” and didn’t follow-up on problems identified.

I’ve decided not to get hung-up on nomenclature. I can call these things whatever I like. What’s most important is that I create a way to manage data intentionally and effectively. Per Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over, I intend to create lists of things to prove, show how I will accomplish and evaluate records I collect, and then track my progress and holes in logs. Call it what you will, it’s what we do that matters most.

Here are some helpful links:

Patricia Rhon’s post on Tracking Research

Patricia Rhon’s sample Evernote Research Plan

Genealogy Do-Over FB Post by Renita Ford Collier

Renita’s blog post on Setting Research Goals

Erin Williamson Klein’s blog post on Research Goals and Workflow

Family Search — Basic Genealogy Research Plans

Board Certification for Genealogists — Focused vs. Diffused Research

Genealogy Do-Over FB Discussion on Research Plans and Goals

The information at the links above was provided by other researchers who have shared their processes. Why not check out their blogs and Facebook posts to thank them?

3 thoughts on “Research plans, logs and to-do lists: What’s a genealogist to do?

  1. Very helpful. While my research and analysis techniques are fairly solid, there is still room for improvement. I’ve always been particularly confounded by the idea of research goals, plans, and to-do lists. I’ve been more of a “cast a wide net and see what pops up” can of person. Maybe because I have lots of annotated artifacts and recent family histories/journals that I’ve inherited. I use those as a starting point and than focus on “proving” whatever seems interesting at that time. Trying to be more focused and organized…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your post! I have been grappling and thinking about join in the Do-Over…being able to dedicate the time is the key for me. You have done a very nice job of thinking through the process and making it work for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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