Most genealogy "pro's" will tell you that you need to develop research plans prior to starting searching. I wholeheartedly agree. And I try to create those as much as possible.
But - I also like to infuse a little bit of "stream of consciousness" searching into the time that I have available to hunt for stuff.
To me - this adds fun to the process - and most importantly adds the ability for the subconscious to add to the mix.
We are talking about finding stuff, NOT analyzing or proving things. Some call it willy nilly searching and look down on that. But my view is that you need to find stuff any way that you can. Now if you are a professional and are performing work for clients then you obviously are working with someone else's money and you need to have a detailed plan and be cognizant of your time expenditures.
But if you are searching for yourself, then in my opinion anything goes. It is your time and no one else's so if you end up wasting time you are the only one to have to deal with it. And all of us have different "searching personalities." Not to mention it is hard to add searching discipline if a disciplined way of doing most things just does not "fit you."
What kinds of techniques apply if you want to find stuff and have some fun doing It and don't have a detailed research plan?
Fill in the Blank Searching
This is frowned upon but I do it anyway. Just do some filtering and extracts from your genealogy database of the folks with missing information (dates and locations). An example - Which individuals do not have any birth information? Or who do I not have the burial information for? Irrespective of repository I allow myself an hour or two online just trying to find birth records or burial records to complete the blanks. I may combine these fill in the blank searches with the next type - repository searching. Here's the deal - you have to start somewhere. And obtaining that first piece of information to fill in a blank is a start. Doesn't prove anything - but at least you are on the road with some kind of evidence that will help the argument. Then you can plan to obtain additional stuff to further your argument.
This is where you hone in on the records available in a specific repository or collection. This technique can be used for offline as well as online searching. In this case again I do an extract of which individuals are in the location served by the repository. Planning is indeed recommended for doing a site visit. For example when my cousin was doing research at the New York City Archives for our family, I created an extract and prepared a list of individuals, all of whom had a presence in New York City at some time in their lives. Not necessarily all to fill in the blanks, but also to find a birth certificate when all we had previously was info from an index. I used this technique when the 1940 Census became available as well. I created an extract of everyone in my tree that was alive in 1940. (See my tutorial Easy to Create a Census Checklist using Excel.) Then I proceeded to use the repositories available to find the census records for those names extracted. Note - save yourself a bit of frustration. At least look at a list of what is and is not available on these online sites. Here is a recent article from Ancestry Anne Mitchell regarding How Do I Know if a Vital Record Exists? The FamilySearch Wiki is outstanding as well in providing information for what is available and where.
Updated Repository/Collection Searching
This approach does require some forethought. Say that ancestry.com or FamilySearch provides an updated collection to one that already exists by adding new records. Or provides a brand new collection that you wish to search online. Here I do extracts again based on the location served. And I save those extracts and checklists and make notes of what I need and what I have found, as the collection may likely be updated in the future - thus I won't have to start from scratch next time.
Total Stream of Consciousness Hunting
This has no plan. The worst way to search but sometimes can be rewarding. Fully by the seat of your pants, but make sure and give yourself a time limit. And it is fun. This works for those personality types like me, who wouldn't color within the lines when they were a kid.
Again, we are talking about finding stuff, not analyzing or proving assertions. In my opinion you can get results when you have a loosey goosey searching style. Search without guilt; go for it - you might just find some things that you really want. But most of all have fun.
Anyway - this is what I do some of the time. Is it kosher? Heck if I know - but it is fun for me. And I have found tons of stuff. Many of my ancestors are now known - and remembered.