Resolutions, Goals, and Objectives

It’s January—the first month of a new year. This is the time when people tend to think about clean slates and a fresh starts. They make resolutions and set objectives. If you’re a member of the National Genealogical Society, at least some of those objectives likely relate to genealogy.

Most people express their resolutions as goals—general, long-range targets stated in terms of a result or outcome. Goals are, more or less, dreams for the future, rough ideas about where one would like to be someday. Common new-year goals include getting more exercise, eating better, saving money towards retirement, losing weight, and learning to relax. Genealogists’ goals may focus on improving research skills or continuing to investigate their subject families.

Unfortunately, resolutions are frequently abandoned after a few months. Experts feel that this is due to goals being stated too vaguely, making them difficult to achieve. If people instead set realistic, well-defined objectives, experts say, they will be more likely to stick with their good intentions. While goals are broad and general, objectives are specific. They can be viewed as the baby steps taken in an effort to reach a goal. Objectives are measurable and can be restricted by time, money, and other considerations. Setting specific objectives is an important concept for researchers to understand as they look towards their genealogical goals for the coming year.

Famed ballplayer Yogi Berra said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”[1] And that is true of genealogical research. If genealogists are unsure of where they’re going, they never know where they’ll end up. A lack of focus and preplanning may end in frustration with a self-imposed roadblock.

Instead of working only with broad, vaguely stated goals, genealogists should break those goals into manageable objectives. Research-related objectives could include being accepted to a lineage society, publishing a family history, applying for dual citizenship, identifying an immigrant’s place of birth, or establishing specific pieces of information for certain people (for example, place and date of death, names of parents, military service, and so on).

Once well-defined objectives are in place, genealogists must decide how to reach them. Researchers who are interested in joining a lineage society could plan to investigate requirements and procedures, gather and organize evidence, and begin the application process. Prospective authors who have an objective of writing for a journal might plan to obtain a copy of the journal’s author guidelines, study past issues, and perhaps send an inquiry to the editor to gauge interest in the topic. Genealogists who want to strengthen their analytical abilities or learn about a particular subject might consider attending a national conference or institute, enrolling in a course, and reading books.[2]

Genealogists who are ready to tackle a particular research problem formulate a plan to address it. All research projects begin with a review of existing information. Weak areas that require shoring up may result in the objective being adjusted. If the problem is on firm footing, genealogists outline the first steps of research by identifying missing information items, unexplored records that might provide the missing information, and options for accessing the sources. Only the first few steps can be planned at the outset, for early search results may have an impact.

Planning research is more than just making lists of sources and then looking at them. Planning also involves designing strategies for solving research problems. Say, for example, a source is missing or doesn’t provide the needed information. Answering the research question will demand alternate approaches. Will other sources yield the same information? Could the “missing” record have been incorrectly indexed? If so, will searching the records one by one uncover it? Did the research subject leave few records? Could the subject’s spouse, friend, or other relative have left records that will reveal clues? Considering various strategies is an important part of planning.

Some genealogists become discouraged during research because of limits they unconsciously place on themselves. Perhaps they restrict research plans to include only records that are available online or in a favorite nearby courthouse—but sound research plans give priority to the most reliable sources that will provide the strongest available evidence. As an alternative to setting up roadblocks, hesitant researchers could define one or more “mini-objectives” to address accessing original records in distant or unfamiliar places. Specific steps might include traveling to archives or libraries, investigating remote-access options (such as interlibrary loan or requesting searches by email or letter), and identifying reliable, professional researchers to conduct work on their behalf.

So here’s to the fresh start every new year brings. It’s January. It’s time for genealogists to think about the coming year. Long-range goals must be broken into specific, well-defined objectives. Those objectives might include personal development as well as research projects. Clear objectives simplify planning. Timelines and budgets help keep plans on track. With enough determination to dream, define, plan, and get going, those objectives will certainly be met.

[1] “Yogi Berra Quotes,” Baseball Almanac (http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/quoberra.shtml : accessed 6 January 2017).

[2] For other ideas about personal-development objectives, see “Breaking Out of Comfort Zones” in the November 2016 issue of NGS Monthly.

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