Here’s a public service message: Back up your computer regularly. This has more to do with your pocketbook than you might think.

Not only was I sick this week, but the hard drive on my laptop crashed. It’s gone. The Apple Geniuses (that’s what they call themselves!) cannot salvage it. I was able to pull the single most important document (the GRS spreadsheet) and a few posts-in-progress, but I lost a hell of a lot, including:

  • Several electronic gift certificates. (I’ll contact the companies to see if they have provisions for cases like this.)
  • Two years of other e-mail, including a number of guest post submissions and, more importantly, conversations with reporters, publishers, and literary agents. (So much for laying the groundwork for a future book!)
  • Two years of digital photos.
  • My iTunes music and video library (including last week’s episode of The Office).
  • A huge collection of unfinished GRS articles and ideas, including one of my pet projects, a post I’d been working on for months.

How did this happen? I was dumb. It’s been years since I experienced a hard drive failure, so I grew complacent. I was lazy. My backups became infrequent. The last time I archived files was in March, and that didn’t include the items I listed above. (Fortunately, however, I moved my financial files permanently to my desktop machine at that time. If I had lost those, I’d be a nervous wreck.)

I’ve learned some lessons from this:

  • Hard-drive failures can occur without warning. In the past, I’ve always known a disk was going to fail because I’d get some sort of warning (strange sounds, error messages). Not this time. I had been telling myself that I didn’t need to back up because everything was running smoothly. I was wrong.
  • I’m migrating to web-based apps. Google Mail has always seemed clunky to me, but I no longer care. When my computer crashes, I know the data’s safe. If I had been on Google Mail all along, I’d still have all the book-project information! If I’d been using Google Docs, all my half-written articles would still be safe!
  • I’m creating functional automatic backup systems. The crazy thing is I already have all the necessary components for automatic backup across our wireless network. I’ve just been too lazy to put things in motion. I’ve been backing things up by hand — once or twice a year. Dumb.

When my computer goes down, it has a huge impact on my finances. Just the tangibles alone (gift certificates, iTunes library, computer repairs) are worth hundreds of dollars, and that doesn’t count the time. The lost data represents countless hours of work, days of sweat and tears. And, of course, my livelihood is entirely computer-based.

Please learn from my mistake. If you, too, have important information on your computer, make a plan to back things up regularly. At the very minimum, make copies of your most important data: financial information, work documents, and vital e-mail. For more information, check out backup best practices for PCs and how to back up your Mac intelligently. Or check out the official documents at Microsoft and Apple.

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