Why don't you back up your computer?

What's holding you back from doing something you know you should be doing?

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
4 min read

Most computer users know they should back up the files on their computer, yet many don't. Why not?

Leo Notenboom raised this question recently, see "Why don't people back up?"

No computer techie can answer this question, which is why both Leo and I have to ask. We're computer nerds and, as such, backup is part of our DNA. Techies can't put themselves in the shoes of the millions of computer users who don't back up their computers. We're different.

So, those of you who don't back up your computer, but know full well that you should, tell me what the obstacle is. Send an e-mail to dontbackup at michaelhorowitz dot com.


One obstacle to any backup scheme is organization. Regardless of the hardware or software involved, you need to be able to point to the files you wanted backed up. This requires some understanding of the file system and I don't see a way around that. It also requires some organization on your part, which may be the fatal flaw for some people. If you save files that you care about all over the place, your only backup option is to copy the entire computer, which is always a pain in the neck.

Back in the days of MS-DOS, I got in the habit of saving all my personal files in a folder called "Mikelet" reflective of the fact that folders could only have eight character names and that my initial PC use was for writing letters. To this day, I keep all my personal files in a folder with the same name (although I have added subfolders for segregating specific types of files). In the years since, Microsoft invented "My Documents" to serve the same purpose. Linux users know this concept as the home folder.

I never liked the name "My Documents." First, having a space in a folder name is asking for trouble. Second, it's meant as a repository for all your personal files, not just "documents" a term normally used to refer to word processing files. So, if you're not yet organized, and your name is Harvey, you may want to start off by creating a folder called "HarveysFiles" to simplify your backups.

But there are likely to be other important files, such as e-mail, that you want to back up. Do you know where your e-mail is on your computer? Some backup programs are smart enough to know the location of e-mail for handful of popular programs, but many of us have to find it the hard way. If you exclusively use Webmail, then your e-mail does not reside on your computer at all. In some ways this is good, but if your e-mail is important, and you want to make a backup copy, you need a totally different scheme than the one employed for files on your computer.

Is it too much to get organized or to take inventory of where the files that you care about reside? Is this what's preventing you from backing up?

Other Reasons

My best guess for why people don't back up their computers is that they haven't found a simple, short introduction to the topic. Many of the comments at ask-leo.com were from computer users who simply didn't know where to begin.

Other people noted that they tried to read the documentation for their backup program but were confused by the terminology and/or jargon.

One person suspected that computer users with no training are afraid that they may accidentally screw up the computer and they'll have no idea how to fix it. I feel like that when driving a car--what I know about engines could fit on the head of a pin. Fortunately for me, cars are much more reliable than personal computers. Is the fear of screwing things up holding you back?

Is picking a backup program too much for you? There are, after all, hundreds to chose from. Is deciding on the backup media too difficult? Or, is the choice of local backups vs. remote off-site backups the stumbling block? (Mozy users may want to read "Everybody likes Mozy--except me, Part 1").

Those of you who do back up, please don't tell me what your backup scheme is. There are so many combinations of needs, software, and hardware that there is no one right answer for anyone. There isn't even one right approach for me. I use one scheme for my main desktop computer and another for my laptop which I take when traveling.

Perhaps you've heard this before: there are only two types of hard disks--those that have failed and those that will.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.