Avoid weeping at the sight of the sad folder with data backup. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mohamed Nazmi. Licensed under CC 2.0 BY-SA.It’s back-to-school season, and that means that it’s a good time to reconsider how you store your most useful data (for instance: term papers). Even though you may already be using the cloud and external storage systems to keep extra copies of your data, it is always useful to do a yearly review of where and how you store the things that keep your digital life going. If you’re not already, make sure you follow these steps to prevent yourself from being stung by data loss during the school year.

Buy an external hard drive: The buying of the drive is a no-brainer; get one that is approximately the same size as your computer’s internal drive (the drive will be used for backup–if you want one to store movies and things, either get a bigger drive or split the files onto two drives). Setting up the backup is another matter. First, pick a backup software and learn how to use it. Mac users can see the Time Machine FAQ thread here. Windows XP users can look here for Microsoft’s backup suggestions, while Windows 7 should go here. Linux users should check here for software suggestions. You’re not limited to the backup apps built into your OS; for instance, CarbonCopy on the mac and these programs for Windows. The important thing is knowing how to run the program.

Set backup reminders: An external drive is worth nothing if you don’t use it consistently. Either set your backup utility to remind you to use it (usually an option in the program’s settings) or use an external reminder: set it up as a repeating GCal or iCal event, or just write it down where you’ll see it. Pick a decent backup frequency: every week or 10 days should cover most users. If you’re constantly adding new work, of course, set it to be more frequent.

Store in the cloud: When possible, store your work–especially school-related things, like papers and receipts–somewhere other than your local hard drive. If you haven’t already, sign up for (free!) Dropbox and start saving all your papers to your local Dropbox folder. Your files will be accessible anywhere with an internet connection (useful for printing papers in a computer lab without having to lug a thumb drive/your laptop around), and if your computer should die/be stolen, your files are safe and sound. Things that you’ll need to access but which aren’t finished papers–receipts, course syllabi, and powerpoint presentations from class–can be stored in the (also free!) Evernote (for more info, check out Sean’s article here). Though it’s not a great choice for papers because it focuses primarily on editable notes which don’t maintain the strict formatting you need for papers, it’s a great way to keep information you need accessible at other computers with internet accessibility. Unlike Dropbox, it allows you to edit files without having to download and change them; this can be especially useful for course notes.

Know where things are stored: Whether you keep track of it in a notebook, on a Post-It note, or in a text file in the cloud, it’s good to have a coherent system for storing your files. How you do it is up to you, but backup is all about actually making the files you need accessible.

If you follow these steps, you should be good to go if your laptop is stolen, someone spills beer on your machine, or your hard drive fails. Data loss is easy to prevent–so don’t let it happen to you!