How Computers Work Excerpt

Data Maintenance

A new computer comes with just a few files already on it. It’s a clean slate ready for you to start storing stuff. Sadly, I’ve seen many cases where people have poor data management practices, making it hard to find files on their computers. They also don’t have a plan in case their computers crash and they can’t access their data.

In this section, we’ll take a look at some good data maintenance practices that will keep your computer’s filesystem organized and ensure that you have access to the files you need when you need them, regardless of whether your computer is working or not.

Keep Your Filesystem Clean and Organized

Have you ever pulled open a filing cabinet packed with unlabeled manila envelopes and papers strewn about inside? If you have, you know how hard it is to find what you’re looking for—you have to pull each folder out one-by-one and sift through its contents, and even then you still may not find what you’re looking for.

Fortunately, computer filesystems are a lot easier to work with than traditional filing cabinets. The principle is the same: Folders hold files and files hold information. Computers also add the ability to do an instant search of the entire filesystem to find what it is you’re looking for.

Unfortunately, most people don’t keep their files structured very well at all. Files have meaningless names and aren’t stored in places where they should be. I’ve seen Desktops cluttered with files that should have homes somewhere in the Documents folder. I’ve also seen messy Downloads folders with data that should have been deleted a long time ago. Fortunately, you should keep your computer’s filesystem spick and span by following a few basic principles.

First, name and organize your files logically. From the main Documents folder, create subfolders for your files. For example, I have a folder called “Car” for automotive-related files and another folder called “Genealogy” for things related to my family tree. I also have subfolders for subfolders. My “Travel” folder contains a subfolder for each trip I’ve taken, plus folders for any trips I’m planning. This same subfolder principle applies to pictures, videos, and other files as well.

Give your files appropriate and descriptive names, too. A picture titled “img_0001” might be okay if it was taken on your beach vacation and is stored in a folder titled “Pensacola 2018”. A picture titled “img_0001” would probably not be okay if it’s a headshot you intend to use for a social media account. A better title would be something like “headshot”, “headshot_1”, or “headshot_business” (stored in a “Headshots” folder, of course!).

You can see above how my Documents folder is organized, one folder per category. You can also see that I have an uncategorized, poorly-named database file sitting all alone. I recommend placing files like this into their own folders, even if there are no similar files to store with them.

Second, move files from your Downloads folder to places where they should be. The Downloads folder should only be a temporary holding place for files you download from the Internet. If you download a picture, move it to a subfolder under Pictures. If you download a document, move it to the appropriate subfolder under Documents.

Third, delete any files you no longer need. This is especially true of files in the Downloads folder. If you download and install a program, chances are the program probably left an installation file behind. You can safely delete this file if you can download the installation file again. These kinds of files take up unnecessary space.

Fourth and finally, empty the Recycle Bin (Windows) or Trash (Mac). When you delete a file, you haven’t really deleted it yet. You’ve merely moved it to a holding place before final deletion. These holding places can fill up needlessly and to recover space you’ll usually need to empty them manually. Depending on your operating system and how it’s configured, they may empty themselves automatically after a certain period of time or once they reach a certain fill limit, but I suggest you be proactive and take care of it yourself. Just make doubly sure that you can safely delete all the files before you take out the trash!

Back Up Your Data

You need to back up your data. You need to back up your data. You need to back up your data.

Read those three sentences again. Once you’ve done that, read them again.

Get the idea? If your computer fizzles out today, and your data isn’t stored somewhere else, you may never get it back. If it matters to you, back it up.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but this is critical. I lost the data on my laptop in high school when the hard drive suddenly crashed. Even though it was under warranty at the store I bought it from, they couldn’t recover the data (or didn’t want to try to). They replaced the hard drive and my laptop worked again, but I didn’t have my files.

Ideally, you should back up your data using multiple means. I recommend that you purchase an external hard drive that is at least 1 TB in size and start backing your data up to that. Many external hard drives come with free programs that will assist you in backing up your files.

You can also manually back all your files up to the external hard drive if you wish. The best way to do this is to open two windows of your computer’s file manager (File Explorer on Windows or Finder on Mac). Move one window to the left side of the screen and the other to the right. Navigate the left window to your Documents folder, for example, and navigate the right window to the external hard drive plugged into your computer. In the left window, select the files and folders you want to back up by holding the Shift key and clicking each one. Once they’re selected, click and hold over one of the selected files and move your mouse cursor over to the right window to “drag” the files across. This is known as dragging-and-dropping, and will ensure that all the files you selected are copied to the external hard drive.

You can store files on USB flash drives as well. A flash drive won’t hold as much as an external hard drive will, but is a good solution for keeping a few important files on-hand. They are also good for travelling. I always kept a flash drive handy when I was in high school and college so I could access important files on a school computer if I didn’t have my laptop with me.

I also suggest you subscribe to a cloud backup service. Some of the popular offerings include Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Apple iCloud. My personal favorite is Dropbox because it is available across all devices and has consistently performed well in my five years of using it. Google Drive is another good choice if you already have a Google (Gmail) account; you can simply start uploading files and you can access them with the same account you would use to access your email. Microsoft OneDrive is a good option if you have a PC, just like iCloud is a good option if you have a Mac.

Ideally, you would use one service to back up all your files, but sometimes that’s not realistic. If you own an iPhone, you may back up your photos and videos with iCloud, while you back up your Windows PC’s files with OneDrive. This is fine, as long as you know where your files are being stored.

All of these cloud backup services offer a certain amount of storage for free, usually somewhere between 2 GB and 15 GB. This is more than sufficient for documents and some photos, but if you have a lot of photos or some videos, this space will fill up quickly. In this case, you would need to pay monthly or yearly for additional space.

Alternatively, you could use multiple cloud backup providers’ free offerings to back up your data. You can sign up for free accounts with Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and any other providers you’d like, and then back up some of your data to each account. For example, you might back up documents to Dropbox and pictures to Google Drive. You can also back up important files to both services as an extra precaution. If you’re on a tight budget or just don’t want to be paying monthly subscription fees, using multiple free accounts is a good option, but you’ll need to make sure you know what’s backed up where.

Figure out how much data you think you need to back up by checking how full your computer’s storage is. On Windows, you can do this by opening File Explorer and navigating to My Computer (Windows 7) or This PC (Windows 10). On a Mac, click on the Apple icon in the top-left of the screen, select the option for “About This Mac,” and then click on the “Storage” tab at the top of the window.

In the example above, I have approximately 217 GB of space free on my Mac’s 500 GB SSD. Therefore, 283 GB (500 GB – 217 GB) is being used. Macs will let you hover the mouse cursor over the colored bars to see what is taking up all the space; in my case, only about 86 GB of that 283 GB are files that I’m concerned about. The other used space includes system files and apps, which I don’t need to back up because they won’t do me any good.

Do some research into good external hard drives and cloud backup services. Invest in at least two ways to back up and recover your files should your computer fail. Cloud services can back up files in real-time, and external hard drives can be configured to back up files on a schedule: I recommend weekly at least, daily if you generate a lot of new files.

Finally, if you have very sensitive files that you absolutely cannot afford to lose, I recommend you back them up to a flash drive or burn them to a CD or DVD and store them in a safe. A better option might be to store them in a safety deposit box at a bank or credit union.

Hopefully this inspires you to think about what would happen to your data if something unfortunate should happen to your computer. A little work now could save you a lot of heartache later.


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