How to Backup Your Mac Easily (Digital Organizing)

If you aren’t backing up your Mac, you’re asking for trouble. Fortunately, backing up your Mac is so easy, it’s almost fun. Almost. It’s even easier than yesterday’s article on how to back up your PC. If you have a Mac, read this article and back up your computer today.

How to Backup your Mac Easily

What do I mean by a Mac or a PC, a laptop or a desktop? Please check out the basic computer terms on this article. Things change all the time, and tech terms are confusing, so I always like to start with the basics.

Even if you have never backed up your Mac before, I promise, you’ll be able to do these three and a half steps:

  1. Plug in an external hard drive
  2. Fire up the Time Machine App
  3. Back up your data (and then properly eject your drive)*

That’s it. Easy-peasy.

The very first backup usually takes somewhere between one and six hours. After that first time, it can take as little as five minutes.

Why Backup Your Mac Using Time Machine

First, why do you care? Isn’t everything backed up in the “cloud?” No, sadly, it’s not. Your Mac has documents that you’ve created and downloaded, maybe without realizing it. It has software that you’ve downloaded. And most importantly, it has your photos and videos. Even if you store these things in the cloud, the Apple iCloud IS NOT A BACKUP.

Say it with me: The Apple iCloud is not a backup. 

It syncs copies between your devices, but it doesn’t keep copies like a backup does. If you delete stuff out of the cloud, it’s gone after a few days. Gone forever. I’ve run into situations where teenage children deleted precious family photos without anyone realizing for months…and after 30 days, those photos were gone forever. Stuff you thought was duplicated in your email goes missing. A computer was stolen or dropped, and important documents were gone. It happens, but it shouldn’t happen to you.

Also, have you ever noticed that the Mac has gotten more and more sneaky? Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your folders are on the Mac or on the cloud.


How to Buy an External Hard Drive

You’ll need an external hard drive to backup your Mac. I’ve been buying hard drives for over 15 years, and I always spend about $100. The amount has stayed the same, but the drives come with more and more storage every year. Right now, we’re recommending drives with 4TB or 5TB. You need something many times larger than the space that’s on your computer. That may seem like a lot, but with the amount of pictures we take today, it only takes a handful of full backups for some of my clients to fill up their hard drive. Here’s more about EHDs and what I recommend buying. 

An external hard drive is usually slightly larger than a wallet and plugs directly into your Mac. If you have a newer Mac that has tiny Thunderbolt USB-C ports, you will need a USB-C hub adapter for Macs like this one so you can use an EHD with a standard USB plug. Apple is great at creating a design so beautiful, small, and simple…that it always needs accessories. Grrr.

Most external hard drives say they work with PCs, and the ones for Macs cost more. Don’t pay more! You can buy any EHD from any brand. Time Machine will give you the option to reformat it (rewrite the EHD software) when you plug it in for the first time, so you don’t need to pay more for something your Mac is going to overwrite anyway.


How to Backup Your Mac Using Time Machine

Apple already has a really great article on how to backup your Mac using Time Machine. Read through it, and let me explain the jargon here.

Time Machine is a free app. It’s already on your Mac, and you don’t pay to use it. You can find it several ways, but the easiest might be typing Time Machine where you see the little magnifying glass in the top right corner of your menu bar on your Mac. If you don’t see your menu bar at first, move your mouse pointer all the way up to the top of the screen to get the menu bar to drop down.

How to find Time Machine on your Mac


Once in the Time Machine menu, check the “Show Time Machine in Manu bar, ” like in the photo above. Once you do this, you’ll have a little icon on the right-is side that looks like a clock with a backwards arrow. Clicking on that icon lets you start your Time Machine on demand, will let you see your past backups when you click Enter Time Machine, and will let you change your preferences.

Turn on Time Machine on Mac from menu bar

We already talked about your external hard drive. Yes, you can use an old one, but only if you are ok with erasing all of the data on the old EHD; formatting it will erase the drive. No, you cannot use a USB drive (aka flash drive, thumb drive or stick).

If you have never backed up before, do it before you upgrade to a new operating system (OS). The latest OS is Big Sur as of late 2020. There is a new OS roughly every year. You should upgrade to the latest OS shortly after it comes out (but not immediately, so others work out the bugs). Backup first, then upgrade your OS.

I don’t recommend encrypting your disk, especially if you aren’t a techie. It just makes it harder to get to your data.

If you have multiple people sharing a Mac, and they each have a User Account, Time Machine will back up all users. That’s a little advanced, and most people do not have multiple User Accounts on their Mac.

Backups only work when your EHD is plugged into your Mac. It’s obvious, I know, but you’ve gotta plug it in. It may feel inconvenient to plug in a hard drive to your laptop, but you just need to backup for a few minutes, then unplug and go on about your business.


How to Eject Time Machine EHD

*You MUST EJECT the EHD properly. If you don’t, the Mac will give you a nasty message about possible damage to your EHD, which does happen over time. If you do it once or twice, you won’t damage the drive, but you need to learn how to eject the drive. Go to Finder, locate your drive on the left, and click the little up arrow next to your drive’s name. Wait a minute, and then when it’s ejected, your drive’s name will disappear from Finder. You are then safe to unplug the drive.

Back up at least once a week. I like to backup and then turn off all of my devices on Sunday. It’s a fresh start every week. If you don’t backup for several weeks or months, your backup will take longer. Just let it run until it’s done.

You can check on the progress of your Time Machine backup while it’s running by clicking on the icon in the menu bar.

If you leave it plugged in, your Time Machine will attempt to make a new backup at the top of every hour. My clients don’t need that much protection. Backing up once a day, or at least once a week, is usually sufficient.

Time machine backups make a copy of all of your data, all your photos, and even what apps you have loaded on your Mac. If your Mac has an original, full-sized version of your photos and videos, then your Time Machine backup will, too. However, many Macs are so small compared to family photo libraries these days, that some people have “optimized” their photos on their Mac, and the originals are in the iCloud. If that is your setup, your Time Machine is only backing up the copies, so you need to (call me) to set up the extra steps to backup your full, original library.


Restoring from Time Machine Backup

Restoring from a Time Machine to a new or repaired Mac is almost painless. In 2019, I saw signs that my Mac was having trouble, and a few days later it died altogether. After a few days at the Apple Store and $250, I had a brand new hard drive on my old Mac, circa 2012. I brought it home, plugged in my Time Machine EHD, hit the restore button, and let it run overnight. In the morning, my Mac looked exactly like it did before the hard drive failed. It was like it never happened. It was the most seamless restoration after a catastrophic failure that I’ve ever experienced. It was really elegant, and completely worth the purchase of the EHD for Time Machine. It was so easy, your grandma could have restored her Mac using Time Machine.

How to restore from Time Machine on Mac


Did you Backup Your Mac?

I’ve written two very detailed articles this week for you to teach you how to easily backup your Mac and backup your PC. Did you do it? Or were my late nights in vain? Please comment below so I know whether I’m helping you at all.

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How to Backup your Mac Easily

Want to run back to the safety of organizing closets and kitchens? Organizing your digital life is important, too. When you are done backing up, see all of my January 2021 organizing articles in one place.