TIPS – Protect yourself from losing all your hard work

Every semester, I have at least two or three students who lose all their files, including final papers for my class, near the end of the semester due to computer theft, damage, or failure. After you’ve experienced this once, you’ll see the value of backing up your data regularly, but I’m hoping some of you won’t have to learn the lesson the hard way. Here are my suggestions for how to make sure you don’t lose your data:


External USB hard drives with storage capacity of between 500-750 GB are inexpensive and uncomplicated to use. Just attach them to your computer and set up an automated backup program to back up all your data the first time and then only changed files every hour.

If your computer is a laptop you frequently take with you, then just plug in the external drive when you get home. Or get a portable USB hard drive you can carry with you. They’re slightly larger than a deck of cards but can hold way more than a USB thumb drive.

If you have a Mac, you can set up Apple’s Time Machine program to work with just about any external hard drive (even a USB thumb drive). Time Machine comes on all Macs with OS 10.4 or later, and you can turn it on within your System Preferences. Specify which drive you want it to use and what time interval it should follow, and you’re done. It will back up files in the background.

If you have a Windows PC, you can most likely use the backup program that comes with your external hard drive, or you can find a free program on the web.


If you have a decent internet connection (in terms of speed and bandwidth allowance), you can set up an account on a free file storage web site and use its utility to back up your files automatically every hour or by whatever time interval you choose. Some popular sites for this purpose include,, and If you have an Apple MobileMe account, you can use iDisk (now called iCloud).

This option will work no matter where you are with your laptop (as long as you have a decent internet connection), and you can access the files from any computer or mobile device connected to the internet.

I use Dropbox for my important files so that I can access them across three laptops, an iPad and an iPhone. I save the files in a Dropbox folder and they’re automatically synched to the web version of Drobox, which then synchs to the other devices whenever they have an internet connection.

While this doesn’t technically count as “cloud storage,” another option to consider is Evernote. It’s a note management app that will synch your notes across a web version as well as your computer and mobile devices. You can store all kinds of files in your notes, including PDFs, Word docs, images, videos, audio files, and more. And you can organize notes into notebooks and collections, with tags on each note. Evernote is quite possibly the most useful app I’ve ever used — highly recommended!


USB flash drives (aka “thumb drives”) with a storage capacity of around 8-16 GB are pretty cheap (under $30) and are very portable, but that also makes them easy to lose, so be sure to put an address label on yours in case you misplace it while out and about. And also be sure to password protect or encrypt any sensitive personal data, like bank account or credit card info. (Or better yet, don’t even put that kind of data on a thumb drive you carry with you.)

You can use an automated backup app with a USB flash drive, or you can simply copy your important files onto the flash drive on a regular basis.

Because they’re so small and cheap, you might want to get two: one for all your important files that you keep hidden at home and one for the files important to you right now that you carry with you to campus and elsewhere, so that you can always access them even if you don’t have your own computer with you.

Keep in mind that USB thumb drives are made of a solid-state material that does not last forever. There are only so many times you can add data to and delete data from a flash drive before it will fail, so don’t expect them to last longer than a year or two. For longer term storage, use an external HD and/or burn data onto DVDs.


If you have a Google Docs account, get in the habit of uploading your most important files (including papers in progress) to your account as a way of keeping backups. You can also upload other types of files, such as PowerPoints, PDFs, images, audio files, and video files.

If you have a Gmail account, you could email yourself copies of important files, such as papers you’ve just made significant revisions to, as a way of saving a backup copy. Gmail will save the attached file on its server, so you can access it there if your computer goes missing or dies.

If you don’t have a Google Docs or Gmail account but do have a high storage capacity email account elsewhere, then you could use that instead. I don’t recommend using your CULink account as you’ll quickly reach your 100mb storage limit.