Back up your work, as you save it.
One of the problems with daily backups is that they happen only once a day. Don’t get me wrong: backing up is a good thing, and doing those daily backups is incredibly important.
But what happens when you work on a document all day long, only to have it disappear before that daily backup happens?
That’s where tools like Dropbox come in.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Programs like Dropbox are designed to automatically copy files between machines. As a side effect, the files are also replicated to Dropbox’s online cloud storage. Leverage this for automatic backups by changing the default working folder in your applications to be a folder within your Dropbox folder.
Dropbox and Dropbox-like programs
I’m going to use Dropbox as an example throughout this article, as it’s a ubiquitous and popular utility. If you prefer, however, there are alternatives, including SugarSync, Box.com, Spideroak, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and more.
The key feature that these utilities provide is automatic syncing of documents between multiple computers. If you create or save a document on machine “A”, it is automatically replicated or updated on machine “B” (and “C” and “D” and however many you are using with the utility).
However, you don’t need two (or more) machines for these utilities to have value. If you only work on one machine, the value comes from a by-product of the data synchronization. What looks to you and me like a direct copy from machine “A” to machine “B” is in fact1:
- Copy from machine “A” to the service’s cloud storage.
- Copy from the service’s cloud storage to machine “B”.
Between those two steps, your material is backed up to the cloud. Even if there is no machine “B”, you still benefit, because every time you save a document, it’s automatically copied to or updated on the service’s cloud storage.
What if there is no machine “B”? Then every time you save a document on machine “A”, it’s automatically copied or updated on the service’s cloud storage.
That sounds exactly like a backup to me. Every time you save the document to disk – even one in the cloud – it’s backed up.
Go to dropbox.com and sign up for an account:
Fill in your name and email and choose a strong password:
Naturally, you’ll have to agree to Dropbox’s terms of service. After clicking Sign up, you’ll be taken to a page to select which Dropbox plan you want:
The free two-gigabyte plan is a fine place to start.2
Once you click Continue, the Dropbox downloader will download and install the program.
You can investigate the settings as you like, but the default installation is actually all you need. The important aspects of the newly installed Dropbox are:
- It will automatically start with Windows.
- A Dropbox folder will be created in C:\Users\<username>\Dropbox, where “<username>” is replaced with your Windows username.
- The dropbox icon will appear in the taskbar notification area.
The Dropbox folder
The folder that the Dropbox installer created in C:\Users\<username>\Dropbox is where all the magic happens.
- Anything you place in this folder is automatically copied to the Dropbox servers.
- Anything you update in this folder is automatically updated on the Dropbox servers.
- This includes any and all sub-folders that you might create as well.
And if you have more than one machine using Dropbox with this same account, then any files placed into this folder or updated on other machines are downloaded (synchronized) to this one.
But this is only true for documents within the Dropbox folder.
If you’re using Dropbox for automatic behind-the-scenes backup, we need to make one other change.
Changing the default document folder
I’m going to use Microsoft Word for this example, but the concept is very simple:
- Change the default document folder in whatever application(s) you use regularly to be a folder within the Dropbox folder.
In Word 2013, under File, Options click on the Save sub-section:
Change Default local file location: to be the full path to the Dropbox folder. In fact, it might be worthwhile to create a folder within your Dropbox folder for this purpose. I created a “Documents” folder within my Dropbox folder, and then changed the Word default folder to C:\Users\LeoN\Dropbox\Documents:
Now when you create a new document in the default location,
that document is automatically replicated to your Dropbox account online.
In fact, every time you hit “Save” in Word, the document is uploaded to Dropbox. You can always download the most recent copy from the Dropbox web interface.
As I’ve said, the big selling point of Dropbox, and utilities like it, is that you can install it on multiple machines, and the files you place in your Dropbox folder will be synchronized across all of them.
Dropbox online also includes version history. Quoting the Dropbox site: “By default, Dropbox saves all deleted and previous versions of your files for 30 days.” Thus, if you’re using Dropbox as I’ve outlined here, and you make a number of changes, or accidentally delete a file in the Dropbox folder on your hard drive, not to worry: you can still use the Dropbox online interface to retrieve previous copies of the file.
Dropbox is available across different devices, including phones and tablets, as well as different operating systems, including both PC and Mac.
Using Dropbox for work in progress
My example has been about using Dropbox with Microsoft Word, assuming that’s where you do most of your work. In reality, any program that saves data to your computer can be set to default to your Dropbox folder.
I use Dropbox folders for my Word documents, text files, pictures … just about anything that’s a “work in progress”. (In reality, since I also use this technology on multiple machines, I keep much more in these folders, simply so they’re replicated across all my machines.)