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When the Passion's Gone: How to Handle Genealogy Burnout

Yes, hobbies can cause burnout too. Learn how to successfully cope if genealogy research suddenly seems pointless, too difficult or too overwhelming.


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At first glance, it might seem odd or even silly that someone could have "burnout" from a hobby. Isn't burnout for social workers, doctors, grad students, lawyers? But many family history researchers who spend years searching, scanning, cataloging and compiling information will find themselves at some point fitting the Mayo Clinic's definition of job burnout: "a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work."

Genealogy burnout is different from being frustrated by one (or several) brick walls. It's about doubting your entire body of research, doubting your goals, doubting the future.

"I have been doing research for over 30 years and suddenly have no enthusiasm for it," wrote one poster in a Yahoo forum. "Since I have no one to leave all of it to, I sometimes wonder why I bother. "

"It has become so difficult to find information and locate people," answered another poster. "It's more work than fun. Plus it takes money to have this hobby. So yes, I definitely have been burned out."

Fortunately, the strategies that professionals use to cope with burnout can also help you regain your love of family history. Here are some steps you can take if the weight of family history is getting to be too much.

Back to Basics

The heady excitement of being on a roll or just having a busy life means that genealogy research can take time away from the basics. In a Canadian Bar Association list of 10 ways for lawyers to avoid stress and burnout, social neuroscience researcher Owen Kelly recommends taking care of your physical needs: enough sleep (7 to 8 hours a night) and regular exercise. Make sure you're eating healthy, too!

Take a Break

Depending on how burnt out you feel, it might be time to step away for a bit. Both the Canadian Bar Association and the University of Guelph recommend a break for lawyers and graduate program students who are finding it difficult to continue their work.

"If you're stuck and feeling in a rut, a major break might be just what you need to recharge your motivation and get a fresh perspective on the topic," advises Guelph to its graduate program students.

Evaluate Where You Are

Once a healthy routine and a well-deserved break have you feeling better in body, mind and soul, it's time to think about your research. Advice for graduate program students, who know the stress of major research projects, can be especially helpful for those of us tackling genealogy work.

The University of Guelph advises its grad students to do an "orientation" by summarizing how much of their project they have completed. You can do this, too. Write down everything that you have done - the family lines you have completed, the family lines you have made significant progress on, the family lines you have begun. There will be a lot of work listed there! Add in the different genealogical and historical topics you have gained knowledge in, the research tasks you've learned to do that you couldn't do before, the software that you have mastered, the relatives you have made contact with.

"Take time to take comfort in your progress," writes the University of Guelph. "Don't discount what you've achieved because there's still a lot to do, or guilt-trip yourself because you think that you should be much further by now. How far you still have to go does not depreciate how far you've come. Look at what you've accomplished and savor it."

Get Inspired

Once upon a time you felt that rush of finding that relative in a census, of solving that mystery, of pulling together a line of ancestors. You can find it again. The University of Guelph encourages its grad students to re-discover what initially lit their passion.

"Think back to the spark that first kindled your interest - was it a book, a movie, a trip, a job, a speaker, a special teacher? Connect with the source of inspiration again if you can . . . Understanding why you started out on this path may help you to keep going."

Moving Forward

While burnout is always a possibility, you may be able to minimize the chances of it coming back by improving how you think about your work. Owen Kelly on the Canadian Bar Association website recommends several techniques:

1. Create several short-term goals. "The completion of each small task will foster a sense of accomplishment, diminish your worry about your workload and motivate you to pursue further objectives," writes Kelly.

2. Realize what you can't control. And don't sweat it.

3. Problem solve, don't "emotion focus." If you have a problem, write down what it is and come up with concrete steps that can address it. Don't blame yourself or think in circles.

4.Be flexible. Try re-framing your problems. If that one maternal line has hit a seemingly impenetrable wall, don't think, "I'll never get this done. It's pointless." Instead, think, "I'll leave this line for now and use this as an opportunity to tackle that other line I didn't have time for before."

Get Social

Support from others is very important. The University of Guelph notes that finding social support can be difficult for grad students, because friends and family don't always understand what it's like to write a thesis.

The same goes for genealogy researchers. That's why in addition to friends and families, consider reaching out to other researchers through local historical societies or online. Our Yahoo posters mentioned at the beginning of this article found support through an online forum.

"[S]omeone wants it," assured a poster to the woman who had no one to give her research to. "You know this, you just don't know who it is, right now. It might be the 5th cousin four times removed that has not yet been born, but 30 yrs from now, would KILL to find that probate record that you have."

"My siblings don't care about it," wrote another poster about her own research, "but hopefully my future children will. So just stick it out. It will pay off in the end and you'll be so proud of yourself."

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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