The problem: Your unsaved changes are at risk
Has this ever happened to you? You're at the computer, working on an important document. All of a sudden your cursor starts spinning or the computer crashes or the power goes out. You start to panic, worried that you may have lost your most recent changes or that your file may be gone. How long ago did you last hit Save? Can you remember all of the changes you've made since then?
The good news: If you were on Windows or Macintosh using Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint (or on Windows using Microsoft Publisher), then there's a chance
that you can recover not only your file but also some or all of your unsaved
changes as well, possibly right up to the moment your computer crashed.
The bad news: The default options in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher are not
set to give you maximum protection. I've got a good backup system, wouldn't that protect me?
Almost every day I find myself strongly advising a client, colleague, friend, or the person next to me in line at the grocery store to back up their computer. Backing up your computer is a good, inexpensive strategy for protecting yourself from unexpected data loss.
However, backup systems can only back up the files that have been saved
to your disk. When you're editing a document, your unsaved
changes (i.e., all the changes you've made since you last Opened the document or Saved it) are "in the hands" of the program you're using, and are not (yet) stored on your disk. So, even if your backup system is running constantly, it can only access the last saved
version of your document. It can't back up the best
version of your document until after
you Save your changes. So, what will protect me from this problem?
First of all, the best habit to develop that can greatly reduce this risk (regardless of which program you use) is to Save your document changes often, because the longer you work without hitting Save, the more your unsaved changes are at risk. If you're working on an existing document, Save will store its most recent version (including all of your changes) on your disk. If you started a new document, Save will prompt you to give it a name and choose a folder to put it in, and then store it on your disk.
Secondly, if you're using Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or Publisher, find the program's Options on Windows (Preferences on Macintosh), and then look for the following settings under the "Save" category or tab:
- "Save AutoRecover info every nn minutes": Make sure this is checked (which is the default).
- Change it from the default of 10 minutes to 1 minute. This greatly reduces your risk of data loss and gives you the best protection that this feature is capable of. This option applies to the program as a whole, not to any single document.
Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher all have separate
AutoRecover settings, so you need to make this change once in each
program you use. This protection isn't perfect, but it's good. What is this AutoRecover feature in Microsoft Office?
Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher have a powerful, behind-the-scenes "safety net" called AutoRecover. This feature is designed to help protect and recover your unsaved document changes when any of these programs stops working in the middle of an editing session. Here's how it works:
- Let's say you open an existing document or create a new one. You might start by scrolling around, thinking about what you want to do. This doesn't activate AutoRecover just yet.
- You then make your first change to the document--you add new text, delete some text, make something bold, etc. This starts the AutoRecover timer. If N minutes go by (the default setting is 10 minutes) and you haven't Saved your document, an AutoRecover file gets created containing a complete copy of your document, including your latest unsaved changes. You can think of this as a "shadow" copy of your future saved document. It's stored in a special folder, not in the same one as your document.
- If another N minutes goes by and you still haven't hit Save, the AutoRecover file gets updated with all of your additional changes. This repeats until you Save or Close, or the program or the computer crashes.
- Whenever you hit Save, the AutoRecover file gets deleted and the timer starts over.
- When you Close your file (whether you choose to Save your changes or discard them), the AutoRecover file also gets deleted.
- If the program or your computer hangs or crashes, you won't be able to hit Save, so the version of your document on your disk will only have your changes as of your last Save, whereas the AutoRecover file will include all of your unsaved changes as of the last AutoRecover update.
- Then when your computer is back on and you reopen Word, Excel, etc., your "recovered" document will open (or be listed as available to be opened), and you'll find yourself back in your previous editing session right where you left off. (The exact behavior depends on which version you're using.)
So, the best way to maximize the protection that AutoRecover provides is to set the timer value (N) to the smallest possible value (1 minute, as I outlined above). How can I practice using AutoRecover before a disaster strikes and confirm that it's working?
Here's how you can test it:
Minor differences in how AutoRecover works after a crash
- Open Word or Excel or PowerPoint, etc.
- Confirm that your AutoRecover settings are set correctly to 1 minute (see above).
- Save and Close any documents you may have open.
- Make a spare copy of an existing document and open that copy, or start a new document.
- Make some changes to the document, but do not hit Save.
- Wait at least 2 or 3 minutes to be reasonably sure that the AutoRecover file has been created.
- Terminate the program to simulate a crash. Using Word as the example: On Windows, open the Task Manager (one way is to tap CTRL-ALT-DEL on the keyboard), select Microsoft Word, then click End Task. On Macintosh, do Apple->Force Quit, select Word, then click Force Quit.
- Reopen the program (Word or Excel or PowerPoint, etc.).
- If the program opens a "recovered" version of the document right away, look through it for your unsaved changes. If the program offers to open a "recovered" version of the document, click to open it, then look through it for your unsaved changes.
Depending on which version of Microsoft Office you're using and whether you're on Windows or Macintosh, when you reopen your program after a crash you may see it try to open:
AutoRecover isn't perfect
- Only those documents that had unsaved changes at the time of the crash, or
- All of the documents you had open at the time of the crash, whether or not they had unsaved changes.
A number of things can go wrong, including (using Word as the example):
What about other programs?
- The AutoRecover option might be off.
- The AutoRecover time interval may not have ended at the moment of the crash, or you may have made substantial changes between updates to the AutoRecover file, especially if the timer value is set to the default of 10 minutes.
- Your document might not have been open when Word crashed, i.e., you might have closed it without saving changes before the crash, which deletes the AutoRecover file.
- The AutoRecover file might not open automatically when you reopen Word.
- The AutoRecover file might have gotten corrupted.
- Word might crash during recovery.
- You might accidentally close the recovery file without saving it, which discards the changes.
- Excel only: You might have disabled AutoRecover for a particular Excel file.
I haven't seen a feature similar to AutoRecover in many other programs. If you spend a lot of time using another program and you're worried about losing unsaved changes, look through that program's "settings" or "options" or help file to see if it has a similar feature.
Some programs are just designed to save your work as you go. For example:
- In Quicken and QuickBooks, each transaction is saved as soon as you finish entering it, so the only unsaved data at risk is the current transaction you're adding or changing.
- Most calendar programs save each event as soon as you enter it.
Where to go from here
- Save your work often. The most common keyboard shortcut to Save your changes to your document is CTRL-S on Windows, Command-S on Macintosh. I hit Save when I pause to think about my writing, when the phone rings, when I'm getting up from my desk, etc.
- The AutoRecover feature in Microsoft Office is no replacement for hitting Save, but it's useful, and it has enabled me to recover valuable work many times.
- For Microsoft Office programs (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher), make sure AutoRecover is turned on and set to save its information every minute. (Note that Microsoft Publisher is only available on Windows.)
- You'll need to adjust these AutoRecover options again when you move to a new computer or upgrade your Microsoft Office.
- Excel only: Make sure AutoRecover is not disabled for any particular Excel file.
- Practice using AutoRecover so you'll know that it's working, and so you'll know how to use it after a crash.
- Read more about AutoRecover to learn more about how it works and things you can try if problems develop. Look it up in the program's Help system, or google it, e.g., "word autorecover".
- See "What's the single best way to protect my computer? [Back it up!]" http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2007_12_19.html
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.