Losing Is for Losers: It’s Easier Than Ever to Back Up Your Work

Backing up computer files is like flossing—we know we should do it every day, but even though it’s fast and easy, we procrastinate. It’s easy to skip it “just once.” Many of us have lost work that wasn’t backed up: We save an old version over the new one; our laptop is stolen along with the backup thumb drive plugged into it; we forget to save in the first place, and just when we’re getting ready to, one of the kids—the one who plays bass in a rock band—plugs his 200-watt amplifier into the electric circuit that includes the clothes dryer and the basement office computer. (Not that any of that has happened to me.)

OK, so I’m a loser. But my loss is your gain, because the pain of losing my work and having to redo it is something I’ve had time to ponder more than once, and because of that I’ve given some thought to preventing it. What I learned was that backing up isn’t what it used to be. These days, when you can back up work online automatically at minimal or no cost, there’s just no excuse for not doing it.*

First, though, I believe it helps to be clear on one’s personal backup philosophy. I once thought that backing up needed to include every datum generated by my computer. I accumulated stacks of CD’s, then a series of thumb drives. These days I feel fine backing up only my active projects. Weirdly, the experience of losing everything can be therapeutic. I’ve learned that after a while old files become so much baggage. Starting over can be liberating. You probably don’t really need it all. In any case, identifying your archives and separating them from work you want to back up regularly can save you time and space and money.

Almost no time or space or money is needed to back up your work (which is, naturally, organized in labeled folders) using an online service like Dropbox or CrashPlan. Using the 2 gigabytes of free storage at Dropbox, I can access my files from any computer that I’ve installed their free software on, or from any other computer by logging in at the Dropbox Web site. My updates to a document sync automatically without effort on my part, and I can share files easily, either by posting them in my Public folder or by e-mailing someone a link to a private folder. If I’m not online when I work on a document, my changes will be synced whenever I’m next online. Security involves extrasuperduper encryption-whatever, which I confess I take on blind faith—whatever it is, it’s gotta be more secure than a thumb drive hanging out of a USB port.

CrashPlan, as I understand it, allows you to back up to multiple locations as well as in the cloud. (The CrashPlan site suggests that a person might back up files to a friend’s computer, which to me suggests a great plot for a wacky romantic comedy.) If you need more complete or extensive backing up, say, of space-hogging applications as well as documents, these free services offer expanded storage for a fee.

Something to keep in mind is that there are different meanings of “backup.” Sometimes it means you work from your own computer and keep a copy online; sometimes it means working from the cloud and keeping a copy on your computer. Sometimes what’s stored online is not really a copy. (E.g., iCloud merely stores a record of your data purchases—such as music—with the idea that they will replace them if you lose your hardware. They warn that in some cases licensing restrictions preclude replacement.) My point: Read at least some of the fine print or take a tour before you commit.


*I’m talking about backing up the personal computer files of a regular-joe professional. If your work involves megatons of research data, you probably already back up to institutional or paid servers. If it’s the latter, feel free to recommend (or not) in a comment.

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