Resolution Check-Up–Making Them Stick, by Juliana Smith

I imagine that many of you are probably asking yourself, “Why is she asking me about my resolutions already? I just made them two weeks ago.” Well, as several articles pointed out, a majority of New Year’s resolutions fail by month’s end. The statistics vary from article to article, but as someone who has failed many a resolution, I have to say they’re probably right. So while the year is still young, let’s take a closer look at ways we can make this year’s resolutions stick!

Break It Down
In my January 1 column, I mentioned writing down your resolutions and posting it on your calendar with a reminder to check in every so often. By recording your goals, you can hold yourself to them and are more likely to succeed.

As I looked over my list, I noticed that they were a bit vague. “Overhaul office.” When I looked around my office, my first thought was, “Overhaul office? OK, where should I place the dynamite?” (Yep, it was that bad!)

Some household reorganization had left my books and bookshelves in disarray, and those dreadful piles had grown to unbelievable size. And the closet! Well, we won’t even go there.

I started a new list. This one read more like a to-do list, with smaller, more manageable tasks that could be checked off with pride as I accomplished them: organize books, file paperwork, clean closet. (I might even want to break the last one down further. Yep, it’s that bad.)

Look for Solutions
An article I read mentioned not just making resolutions, but looking at the reasons behind your need for a resolution. Perhaps a few simple changes can help you solve the problem. For example, if you find that the same books end up being left out to clutter your desk time and time again, perhaps there’s a way to put these books within reach, so that they can be referenced and then reshelved quickly.

Do you have an easy way to file notes and records on your ancestors until you get time to enter them properly into your database? (If your life is as full of interruptions as mine can be, this one is important!) I was able to solve this problem very cheaply. Walking around an office supply store, I spotted a small plastic rack with five hanging folders in it. I had previously purchased a whole box of these folders for about the same price as the rack, and I had a milk crate downstairs that looked to be about the same width and twice as deep. The crate was put into service with those folders.

My first step is to file the piles of notes and database print-outs in the crate–a task that I can do whenever I get a spare minute and that doesn’t necessarily need to be confined to my office. There are folders with little tabs for each family, and I’ve already moved most of the files into this crate.

Once I finish (and check it off my list!) my next step will be to organize the pages, family by family, entering data into my database, and filing important information into each family’s binder.

Do you need a way to keep your family history apart from the rest of your household papers? Since my office is just off the kitchen, I often find that as the table gets cleared for dinner, papers mysteriously vanish and reappear in my office. While installing a lock was my first inclination, I decided instead to add a tray, clearly labeled “Household Papers.” I have directed the table-clearing elf (a.k.a. my daughter) that any papers she removes from the table must go into this tray and not be deposited on the nearest available surface. It sits on a file cabinet where important papers will eventually be filed, and next to it is the shredder, ready and waiting for its next meal. 

Next time you’re in an office supply store, look for items that can help you with the root of your workspace storage problems. Sometimes, you may find you have a similar device at home that will fit the bill, and you can save those office supply dollars for something else.

Filing Systems
A reader wrote this week asking about for recommendations on filing systems. That’s always a tough question, (and clearly, one in which I haven’t quite worked out all the kinks). What I can say is this–your filing system needs to evolve with your research. When you first start out, you don’t have a lot of papers, and you may be able to fit entire branches of your family into one binder or file. As you progress, this won’t be the case.

I use three-ring binders for my filing. I like that the pages can’t easily escape and hide themselves in the piles. I always give myself plenty of space, with each family having a binder. That way it will be a while before you have to worry about running out of space for the papers that relate to that family. I’ve found that when that happens, piles tend to form.

Within each binder, I have a section for each family member, with that person’s records filed chronologically within. At the end of the binder I have a spot for the “miscellaneous” records that don’t quite fit in. Directory lists, those suspicious folks that keep popping up but whom you haven’t been able to place, the “maybe-relateds,” etc.–they all go in this section, again arranged chronologically.

Families come in different shapes and sizes, and so will their files. You may have to adapt the system to accommodate multiple marriages. Large families or families with very common names may need to be split. The miscellaneous section for my Kelly family occupies its own binder. As you add to your files, make it a point to revisit your filing system and tweak it. By taking the time to go back and reassess, you may also find clues you have overlooked as you added new information.

Pick a Fun Goal
As I was talking to Jennifer Utley, the Director of Publications at Ancestry Publishing, she mentioned that she likes to set a fun goal to include with her resolutions. I love this idea. With your family history resolutions, you could add a goal to visit an archive or library that is significant to your research. Plan a trip to visit an ancestral home, the church your family attended, a cemetery, or the workplace of one of your ancestors. Conferences are a good way to learn new techniques in the company of other people who share your passion for family history.

If travel is not possible, plan an enjoyable way to connect with family, whether it be online, through snail mail, or reminiscing over the phone. Create a collage, needlework, or some other work of art that reflects your family’s heritage.

Actually, once you get started with your family history resolutions, you may find that even filing papers and organizing your space can be fun. And the feeling of accomplishment you get as you check off each item on your resolutions list, will give you a great start to 2007.

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

2 thoughts on “Resolution Check-Up–Making Them Stick, by Juliana Smith

  1. Filing – I have six folders of my research. I started with just one, but as I found out more and more about my and my husband’s ancestors, I have had to split it up and now have separate ones for each side of the family ie. Husbands and wives. My husband’s family are Scottish on one side (lots of relatives) and from Northumberland on the other. My mother’s family are Welsh and they had 10-12 children each, so again lots of relatives. Although I started just searching our immediate line, I now find out about their siblings as well and their descendants. I have met a lot of new “cousins” by doing this. Peta

  2. Hi, My quick search of my maternal family line as led to months and months of reading, searching, and buying better software and subscriptions that I never thought I would need. I am putting all of my hard copies into a 3 ring binder with tab dividers. I have put the family tree section the dividers hold in front so that I know which branch for the tree I am swinging through.
    The binder is helping me stay organized right now. It is also keeping the piles off of my desk corner.

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