Save Your Creative Life In One Hour Or Less

by Brian on August 2, 2012

in The Writing Life

You’d never treat your life’s work this way, right? Your lips say no no no, but your habits may say yes yes yes.

File this under Things You Would Never Do: dump your entire life’s creative work in a pile, spray gasoline on it until everything’s soaked, and flip a lit match at it.

We all have Days Of Suck when we feel like doing this. Following through, though? You just wouldn’t. That’s for drama queens in cheesy movies.

But unless you’re adequately backing up your computer-based work — crucial word there, adequately — playing with fire is exactly what you’re doing. Every day. It’s no different. You’re just hoping the match snuffs out before it hits.

Computer pros have this scary saying: There are two kinds of people — those who’ve lost data, and those who are going to. It’s just a waiting game. All hard drives will fail eventually.

Yet backing up remains one of those things everybody knows they should do, but only a minority actually practice. Which is why data recovery services thrive. And why do they charge so much? Because they can.

If your work is worth laboring over in the first place, isn’t it worth investing an hour or so to disaster-proof it all?

Here’s how. I promise to make this, as Einstein suggested, as simple as possible, but not simpler.

And if you still need convincing, imagine ending up like this guy:

When You Can’t Be A Good Example…

I saw it happen again recently: a Facebook friend reeling over the scorched earth left by some really rotten luck.

There had been a break-in at his home. During which the thief or thieves made off with his laptop and its auxiliary external hard drive. Evidently, not once in 15 years had he backed anything up.

Result: 15 years’ worth of writing, notes, photos, and the like … poof. All gone.

The response was predictable, a flood of “poor baby” messages. Well, OK — you don’t want to be cruel, and add insult to injury.

Still, I didn’t join in the litany of commiseration. To be blunt, this would have been hypocritical. I wasn’t feeling it. Here’s what was really going through my head:

You sad, sad fool, you. Instead of fishing for public sympathy, you should be hanging your head in shame.

Because you let this happen. No, worse — you invited it. Worse yet, you were complicit with the thief. Of course I feel bad for you for the computer and hard drive and everything else that was taken. You’re right, though, stuff can be replaced. As for the real loss, the true casualties, it didn’t have to be this way.

But no. You thought you knew better. You trusted in the wrong things and you couldn’t be bothered. And now you’ve thrown away 15 years of work and memories because you didn’t value it enough to invest a little time, and maybe a little cash, in protecting it.

So now you’ve become the worst kind of object lesson. Because you failed to be a good example, you’ll have to serve as a horrible warning.

Harsh? Good. It should be. Losing everything is a harsh outcome.

Backup Theory 101

Backing up is like a workout regimen: The best plan for you is the one you can stick with. And the easiest plan to stick with is the one that, after it’s up and running, you hardly have to think about unless you need it.

Fortunately, you can easily set this up for both kinds of backup that Information Technology professionals routinely rely on to protect vital business data.

I’ve had occasion to talk with and interview numerous IT professionals, and some of their habits and approaches have rubbed off, as I detailed here. Including how I go about protecting my life’s work.

Here’s the key: Data isn’t safely backed up unless it’s backed up at least twice, both on-site and remotely.

Why two copies? An on-site backup can become a casualty too, because there are worse things than hard drive failure. Theft, fire, flood, tornado — if the situation is dire enough to wipe out your computer, it may also claim your close-at-hand backup. Redundancy can save your butt.

But What If This Geeky Stuff Just Isn’t Your Forte?

In wired households, there’s often one person who plays the role of the IT person. Under our roof, that’s me. Hardware set-up, networking, wi-fi, printer sharing, routine maintenance, troubleshooting … it all falls to me.

But if, in your home, that’s not you, ask the person who does handle these tasks to get you set up. Ask, beg, play the guilt card … whatever it takes. And if you don’t have a live-in IT proxy, then you surely know somebody who groks this stuff.

Whoever it is, put them on the job and make it worth their time. A plate of cookies, a gift card from Starbucks or Amazon or Best Buy … you’ll think of something.

It’s not as big an imposition as you might think. True geeks find this stuff fun. And if we like you, we’ll probably work cheap.

Three Shades Of Backing Up

This is the backup system I use, with on-site and remote copies, plus a third copy I call an off-site backup. It’s hardly your only option, or the last word on the topic, but I do think it’s the most comprehensive, most flexible, and fastest-access-if-you-really-need-it configuration.

(1) On-Site Backup

What you need: External hard drive; backup software

Your primary backup is your first line of defense. This is the one that should cover anything and everything that, if you lost it forever, would have you eyeing the rafters for the best place to dangle a noose.

Mac. This is my platform of choice, and I’m highly satisfied with Time Machine, the backup program built into the last several iterations of Mac OS X. Set-up, found in System Preferences, is dead simple. It runs hourly and does versioning, meaning you can retrieve an earlier version of a file. More than once I’ve used it to fetch an earlier draft of a document, and rescue something that got deleted.

Windows. Select versions of Windows have also provided a built-in backup program since at least XP, although it’s buried deeper. In recent versions, follow this path, or something similar: Start —> Control Panel —> System and Security —> Backup and Restore. At which point, you’re off to see the wizard.

Both platforms’ homegrown programs have their critics, mostly on the grounds of being too simplistic and not providing a lot of user options. If you’re just getting started, this probably isn’t going to be an issue.

Still, in case you prefer to go third-party: On the Mac, I can recommend Prosoft Engineering’s Data Backup, which is also available for PC. Or you could choose something from Lifehacker’s list of readers’ picks for the 5 best Windows backup tools.

Backup destination. Any reliable external drive should do. This allows you to easily shuttle your backup to another computer if needed. Just make sure it has at least twice as much storage space as your current data requires. This gives you room to grow.

My current choice: Iomega’s MiniMax FireWire 800/USB 2. I like the flexibility of 2 types of connectivity, FireWire 800 is really fast, I’ve had great service from Iomega products, and it runs in almost total silence.

(2) Remote Backup

What you need: High-speed Internet connection; account with Dropbox, or similar online storage service

The rise of cloud computing makes remote backup easier than it ever has been. While many online storage services are available for a monthly fee, a basic Dropbox account (with 2 GB storage) is free, and free is always awesome.

Dropbox works by installing a folder on your hard drive. Anything put in that folder gets uploaded to cloud storage; when a file is changed, the latest version uploads, replacing the earlier draft. As long as you’re connected online, this synchronization happens almost immediately. It doesn’t do versioning, obviously, but you do have a near-instantaneous duplicate of whatever you choose to back up, which you can access from other computers.

Now, a lot of people, myself included, don’t want to dump everything we wish to protect into a single folder. I use Dropbox for a variety of important files — work documents past and present, financial records, e-mail database, etc. — and prefer to keep my longtime organization scheme intact.

Not a problem. I just use symbolic links (symlinks for short), instead.

If you’ve ever used a shortcut in Windows, or an alias in the Mac OS, then you’ve got the principle behind symlinks nailed already. It’s the same thing: a tiny file that points to an actual file, folder, application, etc. Symlinks just work on a deeper operating system level than the Mac’s Finder or Windows Explorer. When an alias or shortcut fails to fool a program into thinking it’s found what it’s looking for, a symlink usually does the trick.

Dropbox is one such program. It balks at shortcuts and aliases, but feed its folder symlinks and it’s happy.

How do you create symlinks? While you can do it with command line tools, it’s much easier with a utility that turns the process into a simple menu option.

On the Mac, a tiny freeware plug-in called SymbolicLinker works great. For various flavors of Windows, here’s a quick tutorial on different methods, including an add-on called Link Shell Extension.

(3) Off-Site Backup

What you need: Portable external hard drive; backup or disk cloning software; someone or someplace you trust

This is an extra level of protection that may not be necessary, depending on how complete your remote backup is. For me, it’s a good idea. I currently have 1.3 TB of stuff to back up. That’s a long, time-consuming download if I need it, and if I do need it, that means my original drives and primary backup are toast, so I’m already having a stupendously bad day and apt to be a bit impatient.

A further consideration: If things are that bad, could I even count on having a reliable high-speed connection? Plus I prefer having a bootable backup that I can quickly work or restore from, if needed.

So: I’ve used a clone utility, Carbon Copy Cloner, to make simple clones of my hard drives and partitions. If you’re on PC, check the aforementioned Lifehacker list for tools that will deliver the same results.

I store this mega-clone a few minutes away from home. Every couple weeks or so I bring the drive in, update the clones, and back out it goes.

Most of that 1.3 TB of data doesn’t change nearly as often as my active work files. Because I use Dropbox for the most important stuff, I can be more leisurely with this second backup covering all the rest.

Get Your Own Back

People who don’t back up are staking the survival of their work on two things: that they will never make a mistake, and nothing bad will happen.

When has this ever been the smart longterm play?

The world doesn’t cooperate with that. We screw up. Hard drives crash, data gets corrupted, components fry. Thieves take. Disaster strikes.

Even as I’m wrapping this up, I’ve received an email from a European publisher asking if I could send them a tax-related digital form that accompanied a recent book payment. Which they’ve deleted on their end, and apparently hadn’t bothered to … well, you know.

They’re hosed. I binned it too. Almost immediately. Because I have no need to hang onto the financial documents somebody else is required to keep for their business.

Nobody else can pull you from the fire. Only you.

Only you can minimize the damage, and preemptively prevent a data mishap from turning into an irreparable calamity that erases years of your life.

Seriously, you have enough to worry about. So protect what’s yours. Schedule an hour and set this up. And be the good example … not the horrible warning.

[Photo by Patrick Correia]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris K August 2, 2012 at 8:10 am

Brian, excellent article! As someone who suffered from a Blue Screen of Death several years ago and fell victim to my own carelessness aforementioned in your article, as well as improper use of a flash drive more recently, your advice is heartily appreciated. Too bad many of us hadn’t second-guessed that old adage, “It won’t ever happen to me.” Because it did.

Chihuahua Zero August 2, 2012 at 10:11 am

I need to start backing-up my flash drive daily…and then backing-up those files onto the cloud.

Flash drives can be so fragile. I’ve lost plenty of words over the last year or two to such mishaps.

Brian August 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

@Chris: Yep, that’s it exactly. “What — disasters? Disk crashes? Stuff getting stolen? Those are for OTHER people!”

@Chihuahua Zero: Yeah, thumb drives don’t always take an impact very well. So definitely, get on that. And that’s a great name, too.

FZA September 22, 2012 at 2:05 am

Hi Brian,

Unfortunately I’m in the “never backed up” category and yes I should hang my head in shame

Most of my stuff is Windows documents and I was thinking of something simple like this for my documents -http://www.sandisk.com/products/usb/drives/ultra-backup//

Seems fairly simple to use, and I like the AES encryption, even though I don’t know what it means.

I like the idea of buying 2 of the 64 GB versions as it seems like I could very easily use it once a week and store it off-site at my work place (and vice versa for my work computer)

Do you have any opinions of this?

Marc Iverson December 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I’ve bought a couple of thumb drives that are encased in thick rubber. They take impact extremely well (I’ve bounced them off walls in front of people to show them how tough they are) and one has been through the washer and dryer more than once and still works great.

It’s because many thumb drives are so fragile that some companies have built extremely rugged ones. Well worth the price premium because, as you can see, sometimes with the way I handle things, I’m really asking for it!

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