Before Your Computer Goes on the Fritz…

macbook on table
photo by Johan Larsson

When it comes to hard drive crashes, it’s a matter of when, not if.   

The despair of lost files can be prevented with a good recent backup.  So why is it so normal to not have a proper backup ready for the day your computer finally calls it quits?

*   You’re making it too complicated.

Confession time:  I used to not back up my computer files and photos because “I wanted to organize them first.”  Silly, right?  I didn’t need to sort them, file them, or rename them.  I just needed to back them up.  Period.  All it takes is copying them from one place to another.

*  You’re waiting too long.

If it’s not automatically scheduled on your computer, put a reminder on your calendar to do it weekly or monthly.  Each week I do a quick backup for new or updated files.  Waiting for one big annual backup is too risky.  

*  You’re doing it the hard way.

When computer files were smaller, it was easy to copy everything on disks.  I used to fit all the documents from my computer on just 4 floppy disks (1.4 MB each)!  These days, files are so much bigger that it takes hours to organize and copy everything to CDs or DVDs.  It was worth it to buy an external hard drive that I can simply plug in for a complete backup.  (You can buy hard drives for less than $150, and some come with software to help.)  I still use DVDs as a secondary backup for my favorite photos and documents.

*  You’re keeping everything at home.  

Most companies keep backup systems offsite.  Do the same for your personal computers.  Store backup disks at work or a friend’s house.  Email documents you don’t want to lose to your Gmail account.  Consider using an online backup service.  (IDrive and Mozy both offer 2GB of storage space for free.)  Of course, if you put financial documents online, it’s smart to protect them first with encryption or a password.

So let’s talk, if your hard drive crashed today with no warning, just how much would you lose?

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. So True! Been there and HAD the backups. Made my life much easier.

    There’s a fabulous article on how to set up a backup with syncback (the free version) here. When you setup the backups – remember to think about what programs you use too. (I use Photoshop and it has settings, brushes, etc that I wanted to make sure were backed up too.)

    It doesn’t hurt to have both a backup to external drive and use an online backup service. (Speaking of – I need to get my online backup going again since I re-did my computer…)

  2. I used to always put “backup files” on my to-do list, and it always seemed to fall to the bottom of the list and never get done. Then a friend had a home fire and lost her computer, and I realized I HAD to develop a better system for back ups. Enter my lifesaver – For less than $50 a year, it backs up my files remotely every time I log in to my computer. I don’t have to do anything! Works for me :)

  3. First off, great article! I really love this blog.

    To answer the question, I’d lose quite a bit. However, being an IT guy and a backup admin as well, this is actually something that was on my mind quite a bit, and I came to the conclusion a while ago that I want nothing on my computer that I’d really feel bad about losing. I don’t keep anything on here that is so important that it would be extremely difficult/impossible to recreate, justify the time/equipment to keep it backed up, or put me in a bad spot were my computer hacked.

    Some other points…

    I like to think of laptops as a very large cell phone with a hard drive. Think long and hard before you put anything important on one.

    If you are using an application, learn how to recover that application from scratch. Sometimes, you may need to export information that the application keeps internal, like bookmarks from a web browser. Sometimes applications will put saved filed in weird locations, which sometimes those save files you can redirect, sometimes you just have to deal with it.

    Be careful saving anything off site onto an online backup service, especially documents that have legal ramifications, from financial info to the great American novel you’re writing. Even companies get hacked or have disaster recovery issues of their own. Think of it in terms of something having left your immediate to near-immediate control…is that something you want for the things you need backed up? Consider using a fire-proof safe or safety deposit box at a bank you trust instead, in conjunction with removable backup media.

    If it is that important, a second backup is a good investment.

  4. My regular job is in IT, so I know the importance of backups. Yet at home…

    I’m so-so at best. I have a semi-automatic procedure setup, and it copies some files between two different computers. I also put these same files onto a thumb drive (when I think of it). A lot of the other personal stuff also all gets backed up to an external hard drive. When I remember to run my semi-automatic program (I have to start it). This post makes me think I should work on automating it completely. Set it and forget it. I also have some important files that I backup up over the internet to a service (Mozy). This is automatic.

    So, thanks for the reminder on the importance of this – I’ll spend some time this weekend getting it all automated.

  5. If my harddrive crashed today, I’d probably lose a month’s worth of pictures (about 25?), but most of them have already been placed online (blog, photohosting sites), so I wouldn’t been feeling a lot of pain.

    Currently, I try to back up on a monthly basis (when the new month rolls in), now that I have to 4GB flash drives. I also have another external hard drive that holds up to 120GB, but haven’t updated that since May 2007.

    I organize my files by the year on my desktop. Open up “2008” and you’ll see each month, and whatever photos I take during that month, I upload it to the corresponding monthly file. It’s a breeze to organize.

    Since my computer has passed the 5 year old mark, it’s doubly important for me to stay on top of the back ups. While I haven’t had issues or scares yet… they’re just probably around the corner.

  6. This is a very relevant and important topic. My husband’s computer crashed yesterday. He backed up his computer last weekend so all was not lost.

    Losing your computer is very inconvenient to say the least, but losing all your information is devastating.

    I know my husband would recommend backing up your hard drive on a regular basis.

  7. Avlor, I’m glad you were ready with the backups. Good recommendation for syncback (that’s a free backup program for Windows if anyone needs one). I remember you were the first person to tell me about the online backup services you use for your photos.

    Theresa, that does sound easy. I’m sorry for your friend, though. That would motivate me too.

    Thanks Tim, and good insights. I think the only things on my computer that are really important to me are photos — I don’t do scrapbooking, and I have very few prints. If I lost them, my life wouldn’t be over, but I’d miss them. Your comment reminds me that it’d be a good idea to practice recovering files from backups.

    It’s nice to hear from another IT guy, Lance. It sounds like you do have a pretty thorough backup routine in place already.

    Good and simple organizing plan, Leah. We have one older computer, and I thought it was going to quit any day, but it just keeps going…

    Oh no Monica! I’m glad he had such a recent backup. That’s great!

  8. good timing on this one. Thankfully I have a work laptop too because just this morning our home laptop must be ill. It won’t do anything for me.

    darn computers…I wish we didn’t rely on them so much.

  9. What would I lose?

    /glances to the external drive on his left

    My bookmarks, saved games, a large patch for one game (which I’ll now put on the external, thanks for the reminder
    Some less than important files.

    Theft would be a bigger issue, a thieve would take it all :(

  10. We do have an external hard drive for back up but in case of a fire… Just the pictures that we have on DVDs in the hopefully fireproof safe would make it… Something to think about I guess (as if there isn’t enough!) I feel like you keep making my “to do” list longer!!

  11. There is a paragraph in the Lifehacker article that avlor linked to that really says it all:

    “Don’t expect yourself to remember to back up your data, or stack your closet full of burned CD’s or DVD’s. Today we’re going to set up automated nightly, weekly, monthly local and off-site backups for your PC using free software. Once you get this up and running, you’ll never have to worry about losing data again.”

  12. We returned from vacation this summer only to discover that one of our (many) hard drives failed!! Thankfully, it didn’t have anything important on it and Sweetie was able to copy everything to another hard drive… He a computer geek!!!!

  13. Just been getting myself into this habit of “backing up” too… Procrastination and pretending it would never happen to me ended up being old excuses. I think my main problem is coming up with a good way to organise my files on the computer so they’re not such a hassle to back-up. I like Leah’s suggestion of organising by year… might try that next!

  14. great reminder! as a photographer it would be extremely painful to lose any images, especially a clients!

    going to go back everything up now!

  15. Funny you should mention this… I just brought home a large flash drive, to which I intend to copy my photos and (if there’s room) word processing files.

    Quicken data files, PDFs of Quicken registers (because I stupidly converted 12 years’ worth of data to Mac format and now learn that, contrary to what Apple employees promised, it can’t be converted back to a PC format), and Excel files are already backed up to a smaller flash drive. My plan is to store one of these flash drives at the office, so at least most of the data will be saved in case of a fire, and carry the other on my keychain, so it will be with me if the house is burgled. Not foolproof, but better than nothing.

  16. Y’all are so prepared! I’m glad there won’t be sad stories of loss with this group.

  17. Christi~berrymomma says:

    I would have been devestated to loose all my photos. I now have a free account at Walgreen’s. They allow more you to kep more pictures than I’ve ever taken and only require you to order once a year to keep your account active. They also offer the added bonus of printing them anywhere. My mom picked up photos 3 states away the very next day. Woohoo, for fast delivery and no shipping costs.

  18. Ha! Rachel, here’s the weird thing.

    I’m a time management and organising coach who writes a weekly ezine. I plan out my topics at the beginning of the month so…i’d planned to write about backing up your computer this week Wed. Well, my flash drive (I work a full-time job so use lunch hours to work on my business, hence the flash drive) just died on me on Monday!

    Can you believe it? I actually can’t! But it only took me about an hour, maybe two to redo the bits that had been recently updated because thankfully, I do back up!

  19. I think automatic online backups are the best option as far as small files (documents, photos, scans and the like) are concerned. But I’m not confident in free offerings or in fixed price packages, since their business model is that the less you use, the better for them (money paid/service provided ratio), and as such they have an incentive to develop methods to auto-delete stuff you “might” not be interested in anymore.

    The solution I found for myself was to use Amazon S3. It charges you for actual space used plus bandwidth, but it’s pretty cheap nevertheless. I have all my important stuff there, both personal and work-related, plus backups of all my e-mail folders, and I pay less than $3/month, the best thing being that they won’t delete anything you yourself don’t tell them to simply because their business model is the more you use them, the higher their profit:

    Plus, there are many software front-ends out there that allow you to use S3 transparently as an automatic backup solution and/or as a virtual hard drive, my preferred one being Jungle Disk, which works in all my Windows and Linux boxes alike:

    As for the optical disks where your huge stuff resides, don’t forget that they tend to develop defects such as unreadable sectors over time, so you *MUST* set a schedule to also backup them into new media every few years (say, two or three), or risk losing what you think of as backed up. Do this as one of your “spring cleaning” routines and you’ll be okay, not to mention it’s a good way to consolidate your older files, those still stored in CD-Rs, into bigger media. DVD-Rs now, BD-Rs in the near future. I’m currently doing this to my CD-R backups and I’ll tell you: it’s amazing seeing how much less space DVD-Rs take.

    My, how I’m waiting for BD writers and BD-R disks to become affordable! :-)

  20. I learned the hard way to back everything up, if your drive fails your files are gone. This is a great tip but many people don’t act on it until the worst happens and they lose they’re precious files.