losing important files just sucks

I learned the importance of backing up my data the hard way. About 10 years ago I was excited by the introduction of new 500 GB hard drives.

For what a 120 GB drive cost when they were first released I could buy two 500 GB drives for my PC and get 8 times the space. So I ripped all my CDs to MP3, ripped all my DVDs to AVI files, and scanned all of my photos.

It was a big time consuming project but I finally had all of it stored on my new drives. I was set. Until I wasn’t.

About a year later one of the drives went bad and I lost all of my music, my documents, and my photos. Gone. The documents were gone forever…

I still had the CDs and the original non-digital photos of course, but converting them to digital the first time around had taken so much time and effort that I wasn’t willing to do that a second time.

learning from my mistakes

Another year later an awesome consumer NAS, or network attached storage, device was released called Drobo. It would hold 4 drives that were set up as one large drive using RAID redundancy. So if a drive went bad you could replace it and the data would be rebuilt.

I bought one immediately and filled it with the highest capacity drives I could get my hands on and put all of my music, movies, photos, and documents there. But this time I was paranoid.

I created a second copy of the data on a single internal hard drive and placed that in an anti-static bag in a firesafe. I would not lose my data again!

customer horror stories

My story is not unique. As I moved through my career as a technician I came across hundreds of people who wanted my help recovering their lost data.

And with the exception of those whose drives could be partially recovered through software as well as the handful of people that could afford drive recovery from someplace like DriveSavers, the answer for most of them was that they couldn’t.

People lost their home movies, family photos, tax records, novels they were writing, films they were making, term papers, business plans, customer invoices, and just about everything else you can imagine.

not all loss is inevitable

While I couldn’t always help them recover their data, what I could do was help them learn and practice good backup habits so they won’t lose their data in the future. And for those of you still reading, I want to do the same for you.

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting a series of articles on backing up your data, from making one time backups to scheduled recurring backups. But for today I wanted to give you 5 tips to prevent data loss that you can put into practice right away.

1) save your microsoft word documents

I can’t tell you how many times someone’s told me they were writing in a Word document for hours when the program crashed, or the computer crashed, or the power went out. And when they opened Word again, all of their work was gone and the temporary recovery files were blank.

Writing without saving is a very common practice. Almost everyone does it. But you can save yourself a lot of heartache by following a few simple steps.

  1. Open the Word Preferences, click on Save, and check the box for Always save a backup copy.
  2. Whenever you open a blank document, save it to your local drive before you start writing.
  3. While you’re writing, click the Save button, or Ctrl + S (⌘ + S on Macs) after every paragraph or every other paragraph.

Step one makes sure Word creates a second backup copy of your work that will be updated every time you save the main document. And you only have to follow this step once.

That means it will always be one save behind your current progress, but if that means you only lose one paragraph if something bad happens, that’s a small price to pay.

And you’ll be surprised how quickly the constant saving becomes a habit and how easy it is, especially if you use the keyboard shortcuts. I do it on auto-pilot at this point.

Not using Microsoft Word? Perhaps you’re using the excellent, free, and open source Open Office Writer? Good on ya! The same setting is available there as well.

2) work on copies of shared documents

If you work in an environment where multiple people access a single document this can sometimes lead to data loss.

One person might make a change in the document directly only to have someone else copy over that document with a copy they edited on their local computer. And someone else may accidentally delete that document completely.

If the document is on a shared drive at your company, for example, then their backup policy will determine if the deleted document can be recovered. But there are ways you can mitigate the data loss from multiple collaborators.

  1. When you want to edit the document, copy it to your local drive and work on and save it there.
  2. Check the original document to make sure it hasn’t been modified. You can right click on it, or Ctrl + Click on a Mac, and choose Properties or Get Info to see when it was last modified.
  3. If the document hasn’t been modified after you copied it to your computer, you can overwrite it with your modified version. If it has been modified, simply save your version into the same folder but add the date to the end of the file name. Then look through the modified original to see what changes have been made and incorporate them into your version.

That’s great, you say, but how do you know what changes have been made? Microsoft office has a feature that tracks changes made to documents and allows you to compare two documents to one another.

  1. In Word, for example, go to Tools > Track Changes > Compare Documents
  2. Choose your modified document and the modified original document and click OK.

For more information on tracking changes in Word, check out this article on Tech Republic. For information on tracking changes in Excel, check out this article on Scribendi.

The terrific, open source, and did I mention free Open Office has the same features available as well.

3) keep your smartphone sync’d with your computer

This may sound like a silly piece of advice however if you’re like most people, if asked when the last time you sync’d your phone was, you’ll probably realize it was months ago. And believe it or not, some people would answer never.

Smartphones have become a constant part of our everyday lives and we accumulate a lot of data on them from contacts and message history to photos and music.

If you lost your phone or it had a hardware failure today, you would lose all of the data accumulated since your last sync. This is almost entirely avoidable however.

Some people choose to sync their phone every night. Others do it once a week. And some only sync their phone monthly. Which option you choose will be determined by how much you use your phone, however I recommend waiting no longer than 7 days between synchronizations.

If you only lose a week of data when you have a failure, there are certainly worse things. However a daily sync is the safest option. I have an alarm set on my phone to remind me to sync it at 10 pm every night.

For more information on synchronizing your iPhone, read this article from Apple. And for information on synchronizing your Android phone, read this article from PC Magazine.

4) use a u.p.s. battery backup

A sudden power loss forcing your computer to shut down can cause both data loss and data corruption. If you’re in the middle of working on something when the lights go out you can lose it for good.

An Uninterruptable Power Supply, or UPS, keeps your computer powered on when a brownout strikes so that you can turn it off safely. A UPS will also protect your computer from sudden power surges as well.

But it doesn’t just protect you from data loss, it also helps prevent hardware failures that can occur due to, or instigated by, power spikes, surges, and sudden shutdowns.

A UPS is relatively small, can sit under your desk, and you can purchase one for less than $100. I personally use the Cyberpower 1350 which set me back $130. It has served me well for several years now.

For a comparison of five popular UPS battery backups, checkout this article on Life Hacker.

5) recover files emptied from the trash

It’s happened to all of us. You delete a file you think you no longer need and then you empty the trash. And then shortly there after you realize suddenly that you needed that file for something. Only it’s gone, right?

It doesn’t have to be thanks to a free program called Disk Drill. Disk Drill is available for both Macs and Windows PCs and has two features that allow you to recover data that you delete from your computer:

Disk Drill also has several free data protection features that really set it apart from the pack. Once you have these features enabled, you’ll never have to worry about Mac data recovery again:

  • Guaranteed Recovery – Keeps an invisible copy of every file you put in your Mac’s Trash
  • Recovery Vault – Keeps a record of all metadata for deleted files, so that they can quickly be recovered with names and file locations intact
  • S.M.A.R.T. Monitoring – Warns you of hard drive trouble before it fails

Disk Drill also has some data recovery features that require you to pay for the Pro version, however the two features we’re concerned with today are free. Getting started is simple.

  1. Download and install Disk Drill Mac or Disk Drill Windows
  2. When you launch the program, after reading through the short tutorial, click on the drop down arrow to the left of your hard drive.
  3. Click on the Protect icon for your hard drive.
  4. Set both Recovery Vault and Guaranteed Recovery to On.

That’s it. Going forward, if you delete a file and realize you need it, you can easily get it back as long as too much time hasn’t passed since deletion. If too much time has passed, you run the risk that some other data has overwritten the file.

final thoughts

Following these simple tips can help you avoid falling victim to some common causes of data loss, but all of these tips are trumped by the most important best practice available. Backup, backup, backup!

Backup your data regularly so that you never have to deal with the frustration of data loss again!

Did you find these tips useful? Let us know in the comments. And let us know if there are any best practices you use to avoid data loss.