Stop Waiting, Start Doing: Your Guide to Busting Family History Procrastination Problems


(Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)

At about this time last year, I published a guide to getting family history projects done by the holidays. I wrote it because it was the post I needed to read back when I was struggling to finish videos, audio programs and written reminisces in time for my own family’s holiday celebrations.

What they say about “HallowThanksgivingMas” being one big blob of a holiday season between mid-September and Dec. 25 is true! The weeks between Labor Day and early December disappear before you can blink, much less plan and execute a family history project. Even if you already have something in the works, it’s easy to get waylaid by life’s inevitable urgent trivia and get behind on your work.

As I’ve studied what it takes to get unstuck, I’ve come to realize sometimes what you need isn’t an overview or a blueprint (which is what last year’s post was). You need a troubleshooting manual.

So this fall, I’m offering this post, organized by the common places in the family history creation process where people get stuck.

There are three places in the storycatching process where people tend to get stuck:

  • While collecting stories
  • While shaping stories
  • While sharing stories

Once you find your “stuck point” in this guide, you can read a few actionable hints for getting unstuck.

Getting stuck while collecting stories

The first place that people get stuck when doing a personal/family history project is getting started. If your stuckness is simply a matter of motivation, I’m going to go all life coach on you for a second. I’m going to remind you that, basically, you make time for the things that matter to you. If you have a job, you make time to prepare for it (grooming, getting up on time) and (hopefully) you get to the office by the time your workday starts. If you exercise regularly, it’s because you fit it into your day, rather than waiting for a good time to do it.

It’s the same thing with a family/personal history project. While giving yourself a deadline such as the aforementioned approaching holidays can be helpful, the main secret to succeeding is to figure out the steps you need to accomplish this task (more on that in a moment) and make time in your schedule for them. One way that almost everyone can make more time for a holiday project is to at least temporary limit your “screen” time, cutting television watching and social media/phone app time to a bare minimum.

If you’ve made a commitment to doing a family history project, one of the first decisions is what format to use. Today, the array of options for presentation are vast — you can write a book, edit an e-book,build a website,produce a video, record an audio program, create an interactive game based on your family’s story, and much more. If a format for your family or personal story isn’t immediately obvious, you can check out my blog post about choosing a format, and purchase my in-depth PDF report if you need a more comprehensive answer.

Another problem, one I alluded to in the motivation section above, is feeling overwhelmed by all the technical details you’re going to have to attend to in order to successfully self-publish a book for your family, or produce a video, or present an audio program (or whatever else you might choose to do). The simple answer to that problem is to download the PDF of my Storycatching blog series. It’s free, it’s comprehensive, and it walks you through the entire process, from conceiving the idea of your project to rolling out the final product.

Finally, another place in which you might get stuck during the story collecting phase is if you’re worrying about your family lacking enthusiasm about your project.I would approach this concern from several angles.

  1. Do you have any actual evidence of their lack of enthusiasm? Some people may not initially seem very interested, but can show a lot of excitement once you get into the interview process and the memories and stories start flying around.
  2. Everyone is allowed to have a hobby, and this is yours. It’s OK for you to be excited and proud about it. As far as sharing it during the holidays, nobody has to get as excited as Aunt Jane about her crochet projects, and yet everyone benefits when she gifts her sweaters, socks and winter caps!
  3. Some people have a hard time visualizing what the final result might look like, or if they have any role to play in its creation. You can share your organizational plans for your project if your family members seem open to it, or you can give them small tasks to do that can go a long way to help you out, such as scanning family photos or helping you with Grandpa Pete on interview day.

Getting stuck while shaping stories

Once you have the raw material for your project, you’re most likely going to have to shape it in order to conform to a theme or condense it to a reasonable length, which usually means you’ll have to do some editing. I’m a professional editor, so this is rarely my sticking point, but I know for many people this is the part that kills an otherwise promising personal/family project. Anxiety about what makes a good story, and the finer points of the English language, can create an intimidating situation for people who doubt their story-shaping skills.

While there are plenty of good books on editing out there, for the purposes of this blog, I can boil my get-moving advice down to three rules.

  • First rule of editing: Leave space between creation and editing. Even if it is just one day, let your brain rest after you’ve finished writing or assembling your project. This usually helps you see errors like typos more easily, and allows you enough perspective to make rational decisions about structural changes to your work.
  • Second rule of editing:  Get clear on how much editing you want/need to do. For a family history project, the key is finding a balance between making your work the best it can be and the timeline of when you’re going to need to send the project onto the finishing steps that need to happen in order for it to be released into the world.
  • Third rule of editing: Get someone else’s perspective. It can be very helpful during editing to have beta readers or audience members — people who can review your project and give you constructive feedback about it. Whether or not they are part of your family, they will notice things you don’t (especially things you’ve taken for granted) and point out ways in which the presentation could be improved.

Getting stuck while sharing stories

This has got to be the most frustrating part of all. You’re almost done! Maybe you are done, you just haven’t let anyone else see your work.But you can’t figure out what to do with your finished product! If that’s the case, and you’re struggling to figure out what the next step is, go back a step and get a beta reader/viewer/listener on the case. They can probably help you sort out what this project is all about, and the best way to share it.

One of the biggest decisions to make is how to pair the project with the proper sort of debut. Personal and family history projects can vary dramatically in terms of scope, context and topic. Some family histories cry out for a big, fun party to launch and share them … and some need to be experienced together, one on one, over tea and cakes.

If the project has a lot of material that was intense or difficult for the narrator, or covers a challenging period in your family’s history, a big boisterous party might not be the best launch venue. (Then again, it might, if your family throws big boisterous parties all the time, in good situations and in bad.) On the other hand, if you have a family gathering coming up and the project covers lots of branches of the family tree, took the efforts of many relatives, or just has an appeal that stretches beyond your immediate family, then it makes sense to take advantage of a gathering in which you can get the project into everyone’s hands at the same time. Perhaps you could even schedule a reading of an excerpt from your book, or a “screening” of your video or listening party for an audio program.

It’s important to ask your narrators what they want, since they’ll probably be key players at any large family gatherings that serve as launch parties. And figure out what YOU want – you contributed the “sweat equity” and leadership for this program, so your needs and desires definitely count.


The questions to you:

  • Where have you gotten stuck when you’ve attempted to create a family/personal history project?
  • What has been helpful in getting you unstuck and allowing you to complete your project?

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