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Backup Is A Productivity Tool

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Backing up your computer is one of those things like eating properly and exercise – we all know we need to do it, but too few of us actually follow through.

I would submit that having an automated, tested backup system can have a big impact on productivity, and here are a few examples of how.

Here Today, Gone Today

The other day I was walking my kids to school, and the backup-as-productivity-tool idea crystallized for me. This poster was all over my neighborhood:

reward laptop poster

A computer was stolen from the school, and apparently it had a teacher’s course work for their Masters degree on it.

The interesting part of the poster was this:

Laptop reward

Laptop reward

Whoever made the poster doesn’t care about the computer. The only thing they care about is the information on the computer.

It occurred to me that nothing is less productive than losing a year’s worth of apparently un-backed up work in the time that it takes for a laptop to leave the building.

Now Where Is That Invoice?

Recently I needed to pull up a client’s invoice. Being Asian Efficient (or at the very least, efficient) I always search for my documents instead of digging through folders.

I did my normal Alfred search and nothing showed up. “Strange,” I thought, “maybe Spotlight is reindexing or something.”

I decided to locate the file as our forefathers did and went to my Invoices folder and… it wasn’t there.

In fact, my entire document archive was completely gone Keyser Söze style.

There is an annoying and boring story why this had happened, but the important part is that losing my entire document archive had zero impact on my productivity. I went to my local backup and in 20 seconds I had the entire directory tree restored, including the invoice I was looking for.

I was able to carry on with my work after what for many people would be a catastrophic event.

Attack Of The Clones


Though it was undoubtedly a day that started badly, I have always loved this story by David Sparks at MacSparky. He had a complete hard drive failure, but it ended better than most:

I plugged in yesterday’s automated SuperDuper backup and rebooted from it (holding down the ‘C’ key). Everything booted fine from the clone. I then opened disk utility and discovered my internal disc was gone. Just like that. Working one moment, dead the next. Because I am nutty about backing up, this drive failure was a non-event for me.

Having your hard drive die is not fun. However, being able to boot from a backup that is a mirror image of your computer and not miss a beat is a huge productivity win.

Develop A Backup Strategy

By now I hope you can see some of the productivity benefits of having your computer backed up, but what is the best way to do it?

The best backup strategy is one that has your files in more than one place. In fact, I recommend that you have at least two backups: one local, and one offsite. I have four backups, but start with two and go from there.

Types Of Backups

There are many types of backups, but here are the main categories:

  • Local backup: This is typically done via an external hard drive plugged into your computer. Both Mac (Time Machine) and Windows (Backup and Restore or File History) have local backup software built-in.
  • Online backup: This is the most common type of offsite backup. You sign up for an online backup service, and your files are automatically uploaded to their servers. Backblaze and CrashPlan are two popular services.
  • Swap backup: This involves backing up your files to an external hard drive or thumb drive and taking them offsite on some sort of regular basis. Maybe you keep a drive at the office and then every week you bring it home to copy new files over, or vice versa. There are also online versions of this where you can back up to a hard drive at another physical location over the Internet.
  • Clone or image backup: Many people don’t realize it, but most backups are just backups of the files on your computer and do not contain the operating system. If you have a hard drive failure, you first need to install the operating system and some applications, and then copy your files over. With a clone or image backup, you have an exact copy of your hard drive, and the backup is usually bootable. If you have a hard drive failure, you can boot from the clone backup and be right where left off as evidenced by the David Sparks story above. SuperDuper! is a good application for the Mac, and Windows has it built in with System Image Backup.

Synchronization Is Not Backup

Often people will say that they back up their data to Dropbox or Evernote. While synchronization services accomplish the goal of having your data offsite and are better than nothing, they are not true backups. Here are some reasons why:

  • With sync, if you delete a file in one place, it gets deleted everywhere.
  • If you share a synced folder and someone else deletes a folder, it is deleted for you as well.
  • Typically sync services only cover a certain folder or groups of folders. Proper backups can protect everything.
  • With a proper backup plan, you can have multiple backups in multiple locations.

Remove The Human Element

human element

Earlier I talked about swap backups where people take a hard drive back and forth between two locations. Again it is better than nothing, but I am not a fan of this approach.

When a backup fails, it is usually not a technology issue but a human issue. People forget to do things or make mistakes. If you want to be truly protected, make your backup system automated and take the human element out whenever possible.

An Untested Backup Is Not A Backup

How often have you seen people turn on backup software never to look at it again?

Once you implement your awesome new backup strategy, put it in your task management system or on your calendar to review it on a regular basis.

Make sure that it is backing up the data that you think it is. Make sure you know how to restore your files, and do a test to make sure that it works. If you use a clone backup, make sure you can boot from your drive and that it is a true copy.

You can have the tightest, most Asian Efficient workflow in the world, but it will fall apart if the files you need to get your work done disappear. Make sure you have your automated backup in place so that you can be truly good to go.

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1 Comment

Posted by Sean  | July 30, 2014 at 2:59PM | Reply

Huge fan of Backblaze. Saved me when I spilled a drink on my macbook pro.

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