When Family History Research Feels Overwhelming

I’ve been researching my family’s history since I was 16 years old. And it’s something I feel both passionate and curious about. But every now and then I step away from that genealogy research because it feels overwhelming.

I have almost 3000 people in my family tree at this point. And as much I love learning my ancestors’ stories, there’s only so much time in a day.

Who should I focus on today?

If I get stuck, should I just move on to researching someone else?

Which branch of my tree deserves the most time and attention at any given time?

I ask myself these questions often, and I don’t always have answers.

For example, the line in my tree that I’ve had the most difficulty researching is my namesake’s line. That’s incredibly frustrating.

Even though I have more personal stories and a more direct connection to those family members, I know almost nothing about where they come from beyond my great-grandparents. I don’t even know if my last name is really my ancestors’ last name (there are signs it might have been changed shortly after WWII when my grandfather’s uncle was released from Dachau — my family name might have been Weber before Mattern; either that or my great-grandfather’s brother wasn’t really his brother despite looking quite similar… no idea yet).

I could spend all my time focused on that line because that’s where my curiosity lies. But then I’d miss out on so many other stories — ones I can actually find information on.

That’s why I decided a while back to spend about 25% of my time on my namesake’s line and the rest of my time on one of my mother’s lines that I find equally fascinating. Because they were a founding family here in the U.S. a lot of the history around them, where they lived, and what they did was preserved and is easy for me to get to — much easier than researching the other (German) line.

And if I could offer one tip if you’re also feeling a bit overwhelmed by family history research and the scope of your tree, it’s that — don’t be afraid to split your attention, as long as you aren’t spreading yourself too thin. Have a primary focus (a line or an ancestor), but have a backup ready when you get stuck but don’t want to pause your work or you can’t do what needs to be done in your next step.

Do you have any tips for your fellow amateur genealogists when they’re feeling a bit stuck or aren’t sure who or what to devote their time to? I’d love to hear how you handle it in the comments.

Jenn is a professional writer and publisher, and the founder of Climb Your Family Tree.

She first became interested in genealogy as a teenager. Since that early start, she's spent 28 years putting her personal passion and professional research skills to use in exploring her own family history while assisting others in their genealogical journeys.

In addition to running Climb Your Family Tree, Jenn is a long-time PR, social media, and online marketing specialist and she's been a digital publisher / web developer for over 20 years. She owns a variety of web properties including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, Kiss My Biz, and NakedPR.

1 thought on “When Family History Research Feels Overwhelming”

  1. I get overwhelmed as well, and I spend time daily on my family tree, after everyone has gone to bed or when I wake up early, not ready to start my day (thanks to family tree apps). I would suggest scheduling in some live family time, call a cousin or other relative. Just get to know them, rather than “interview” them. Be present with the ones who are still present. For me, this has lead to new family branches, because over time you get to know the cousins’ spouses, their kids’ spouses, the spouses’ parents maybe… and you know the rest.


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