Tips from the Pros: Take Time Off the Computer, from Michael John Neill

A scheduling conflict a few weeks ago left me with two hours and nothing to do. Nothing. No e-mail, no Internet, no phone. Just blank paper and a pencil. I thought I was going to get nothing done. I could not have been more wrong.

A column idea had been on the back burner for some time. I began outlining the article in a way I had not done in years: on paper. Before long the outlining had disintegrated into actual paragraphs and before I knew it the article I had struggled on was finally drafted. The draft was followed by two written out tips for the Ancestry Weekly Journal newsletter and blog. No computer was in sight.

I then wrote down a research problem I had been struggling with for some time. Summarizing what I could remember, research ideas were outlined. Since an Internet connection was not to be had, instant follow-up at a website was not possible. I kept listing research options, spelling variants, possible misconceptions, assumptions, all without being able to do any actual “searching.” Before it was time to go, I had done the same thing for two other “brick walls.” The drawback was I might not have remembered something correctly, but now I would have to go back and review my research and look. I made real progress on three lines without being on the computer or connected to the Internet.

Constant access to the world makes it tempting to search, search, search. Sometimes we need to think, think, think. Consider spending your next few genealogy hours offline and not “researching.” Spend it thinking, remembering, and brainstorming. You may be surprised how much you find out while you’re “offline.”

6 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Take Time Off the Computer, from Michael John Neill

  1. You are so right!

    I am quite new to family history, but it is easy to be seduced by the amazing web searches now available, and to go down an avanue, saving and printing the census/BMD/other images, but to then find that you have three reams of paper on the floor. None of the family tree programmes I have tried seem able to accommodate all these findings.

    So yesterday I resolved to sit down, sift through it all and put the information on to good old paper family group sheets etc.

    The computers can be a snare and a delusion.

  2. A blank sheet of paper – I decided to blue-tack a big sheet of butcher’s paper to the cupboard door in my home office (the only area not covered with family photos or memorabilia) as I have a hiccup in the family line and can’t find the true relationship of two people recorded in a newspaper article as grand-uncle and grand-nephew. I live in Australia and the family was born in Scotland so records aren’t always easily available. The big sheet of paper allows me to get going with a pencil and put in what I know, what the family names might be (they’ve followed traditional naming in most branches) and let’s me look at possibilities at a glance – not easy on a computer screen. I’m thinking of replacing it with a whiteboard so at least I won’t have to paint the cupboard door for a few years! I’m also known to blue-tack names and information scribbled on paper next to photos on the wall. Lovely stuff, paper, never let anyone think a blank sheet of it is more valuable than a computer screen.

    Cheers, Gillian Morgan

  3. Michael – I couldn’t agree more! I always attack a research problem by beginning with a “Mind Map”. (I find this form of putting thoughts and strategies on paper easier than “outlining”.) Thinking before searching is always a time-saver. Thanks for your excellent columns!

    Joneen Matsen
    Farmington, Utah

  4. As past finders why shouldn’t we ALL avenues of research and that includes paper. LOVE it. Computers are great but nothing beats physically writing it. Every sense is used. Brain, hand, eyes. One can always carry paper and pencil, but try that with a computer! Liked the article.

  5. Hi. I attended your Memphis, TN conference. I enjoy and learn from your articles. Taking time from the computer is so true. Sometimes I just wish my power would go out. I really do seem to get better ideas for my articles when it is just me, paper and pencil.

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