I have accidentally deleted everything inside my hard drive. How could I
I’ve accidentally done this myself.1
It’s never pretty and your recovery options are usually very limited.
Let me start with one admonition: stop using the drive. The more that
you use it, the less likely that you’ll be able to recover.
Now, let’s look at options…
Restore your most recent backup
The easiest solution is to simply grab the most recent backup that you took of that drive and restore its contents or restore the backed up copies of what you deleted.
In fact, it’s exactly because of these types of scenarios that we take regular backups in the first place.
Once restored, you’ve only lost whatever has changed in the time since that backup was taken. If you’re following a typically recommended pattern of some form of nightly backup, that means that you’ve lost at most a day’s worth of work.
It’s by far the easiest, most reliable, and quickest way to recover from this kind of problem.
You don’t have a backup, you say?
Then the chances of a full recovery just got a lot smaller and the steps to try a recovery just got a lot more complex.
Seriously, stop using the drive
If this is your system drive, or “C:” drive, then I strongly recommend that you actually physically remove it and place it into an external USB enclosure.
You can then take it to another computer for the steps that follow. Alternatively, you can install a new drive in your computer, reinstall Windows onto that drive, and install any applications that you care to so that you can once again have a working machine.
The goal here is to stop using that original drive. Every time Windows writes to the drive, even when trying to boot, it’s overwriting data that you might want to recover. The only way to make sure that it doesn’t happen is to not try to boot from it at all or use it in any way. The safest way to do that is to make it the second or external drive.
Try recovery tools
With the drive attached as a second or external drive, grab the free data recovery tool Recuva and turn it loose on the drive.
Recuva, and other tools like it, scan the drive media looking for deleted, but possibly recoverable files, and allow you to specify which should be restored.
This could be a painstaking and time-consuming process. The problem is that file recovery tools don’t know the difference between files that you just recently deleted by accident and files that you deleted before that on purpose. They’ll identify all of the files which could be recovered and you’ll need to see which of those that you actually want to get back.
I recommend that you not recover in place. By that, I mean rather than simply undeleting the files on the drive, copy the files to be recovered to a different drive. This should avoid writing to the original drive at all. The goal here is to minimize any changes to that drive until all of the files that you want back have been recovered.
Most people won’t do what I’m suggesting.
Most won’t have backups. Most will simply reboot from the drive, if they can, and run recovery tools like Recuva to recover what they can. If they can’t even boot, most will actually reinstall Windows on that drive, overwriting most of the data that they’d want to recover, and then try running recovery tools after.
And most folks will quite possibly lose much of the data that they’d accidentally deleted permanently.
(You can guess where I’m going with this…)
Don’t be like most people.
To begin with, start by backing up. You can see how easy it is to restore from a backup compared to all of the steps required to – maybe – recover the deleted files directly.
And if you do find yourself in a situation where important files have been deleted and you have no backup to recover from, slow down and take the time to do it right. That’ll significantly improve your chances of recovering what was lost.
1 For the curious, it was a Linux server that I was setting up and I accidentally typed “rm -fr *” at the root of the drive. For the non-Linux users, that’s the remove command, with the force and recurse options, with “*” meaning everything. Fortunately, it was early in the process and I just started over.