5 Simple Habits to Prevent Data Disasters

Jason HeathInstructional

We all spend copious amounts of time filling out spreadsheets, preparing for courses, writing papers, and working with a variety of data every day. With so much of our lives spent creating, modifying, and reviewing digital content, it is not surprising that we are devastated when we lose our work. Here are 5 habits you can start right now to minimize the impact of a hard drive that’s crashed or a destructive virus.

  1. Make sure you backup your data

    There are a wide variety of tools to help you backup your data, but no matter what tool you choose, make sure you have a backup. Ideally, you should have a two-tiered solution: a local backup, and an offsite backup (in case your local backup is stolen or damaged). Unfortunately, few of us even have level 1 in place. A local backup could be as simple as using an external USB drive (these 1 TB USB3 Western Digital drives are great and continue to drop in price) with a built-in tool like Time Machine in Mac OS X or the Backup and Restore feature in Windows 7. For an offsite backup there are services like Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, and Crashplan that allow you to store a backup on their servers, typically for a monthly fee. The bottom line is this: hard drives don’t last forever, and we don’t always receive a warning before the crash. A backup can save the day when that crash occurs.

  2. Use Good Password Habits

    Target was compromised. Home Depot was compromised. Chase Bank was recently the victim of a data breach, and the contact information of an estimated 76 million households (almost 65% of all US households) was stolen. The question is not “if” you will be the victim of a data breach, but rather “when” you will be a victim. Given this reality in which we live following these 3 password habits could save you an enormous amount of time and energy when a breach occurs:

    1. Use strong passwords. This means that your passwords should have a good length, a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols)

    2. Don’t use the same password everywhere. Our online identities and tools don’t exist in one place, so we are frequently required to create new logins. Using the same password everywhere means that when one system is compromised, you are vulnerable everywhere that password is used.

    3. Update your passwords often. If you update your passwords on a regular basis, you give the attackers a moving target. And when a data breach occurs, and the company or web service requires you to change your password, you will already be used to updating your password.

    Most people hear about these techniques every time that a public data breach makes the news, but we still struggle to practice these habits because it sounds like it will require hours of work every week to maintain these habits. It is true that strong security requires more effort; weak security requires little effort.


    The trick is to find some balance in the middle that you will actually use that still adheres to these habits. Luckily there are tools like LastPass, 1Password, and Dashlane that help to automate these vital password habits.

  3. Don’t Open Email Attachments or Click on Links from People You Don’t Know

    Most people know this by now, but it is never wise to blindly click on links in emails from people that you do not know. Likewise, even if you love emotional keyboard playing felines, it is not worth the risk to download that video file on that email from K1ttyFan@domain.com. Remember that no bank, insurance provider, or any reputable company will ask for your personal information in an email; they already have it.

  4. Run Good Antivirus Software (And Keep It Updated)

    This may seem like a no-brainer, but since most services now exist on the web, it’s more important now than ever before. If you use Windows, Avast Antivirus is an excellent solution (recently voted by readers the top antivirus solution on Lifehacker.com). And, despite popular belief, Macs are susceptible to viruses (in fact a recent botnet is being executed through a Mac exploit). It is less likely since Macs still represent a significantly small percentage (about 6-7% according to netmarketshare.com) of the overall workstation market. For Macs, Avast has a version for Macs too. Other good options include ClamXav and Sophos.

  5. Encrypt Your Data

    This is especially important if you keep most of your work or sensitive data on a laptop. If your hard drive is encrypted, it means that your data is effectively scrambled without a password or passcode. Within Windows (Professional and above), there is a tool called BitLocker that can be used to encrypt the whole hard drive, or just selected folders. The tool in Mac OS X is FileVault. Expect the initial hard drive encryption process to take a while (potentially over a day depending on the hard drive size and number of files). If you are looking for a cloud storage system similar to Dropbox or Google Drive, SpiderOak is an excellent solution with a free tier similar to Dropbox.