Anxiety, Absent-Mindedness, and Lost Data

flash driveMy flash drive is missing, and I find myself unable to focus.  (I know some people call this device a “thumb drive” or a “memory stick.”  Please insert the term you prefer.  Thank you.)  In an effort to clear my head, I am writing this.

I put everything on that drive — class notes, quizzes, exams, manuscripts of books and articles, scans of images obtained on research trips, the occasional pdf of a boarding pass, playlists for mix CDs, a complete list of all books I own, a complete list of all CDs I own.  Every time I am in my office, I transfer the files from my home computer to my office computer.  I also do this the other way, transferring files from office computer to home computer.  The good news is that I’ve lost hardly any data.  The bad news is that I often leave the files on the drive after transferring copies to the other machine.  The drive holds many gigabytes of information, and thus itself serves as an additional back-up location.

On Sunday, I noticed it was missing.  On Monday, I checked my office.  It wasn’t there either.  That afternoon, a colleague said he saw precisely such a drive in the classroom where we both teach.  Ah!  I must have left it there on Thursday evening, after my last class, I thought.  I couldn’t pick up the drive then because there was a class using the room.  Well, I figured, I’ll just pick it up first thing next morning, before classes begin.  I’ve forgotten things in that classroom before, and they’ve always stayed there.  I once abandoned a DVD of Private SNAFU cartoons there for nearly a month before I realized it was missing.  Sure enough, it was still there, on top of the DVD player.  I’ve left flash drives behind before, too, always finding them waiting for me upon my return.  So, this morning, when I unlocked the door of the classroom (Eisenhower 021, for any Kansas State colleagues who may be reading this), I fully expected to find the drive there.  But there was no sign of any drive at all.

I’ve emailed everyone who teaches in the room: perhaps they picked it up, to bring it to Lost and Found or to see whose it was (my name is on many documents on the disc).  As yet, the drive remains missing, but I only sent the email two hours ago. And four colleagues have already responded to my query, three reporting seeing it there — so, it’s yet possible that the drive will turn up.

As I wait, I’m anxious… and am having a hard time concentrating on my other work.  Only now do I realize how careless I was with that information.  The manuscript of a biography that took me a decade to write is on that drive.  What if some malicious person posts it on the web?  Exams and quizzes are on that drive.  What if they all end up in some fraternity’s files?  Do I now need to scrap all past exams and quizzes?  I post a version of the class notes for my students — it’s a mix of what they said in class and what I prepared in advance.  I only have one copy of that, and it’s on the flash drive.  There are a couple of weeks’ worth of notes that I’ve yet to post.  If I don’t get the drive, the notes my students are expecting will be lost.

It’s also frustrating because I could have prevented this.  On Sunday night, when I realized the drive was missing, I should have come looking for it.  Had I done so, I’d likely have thought to check the classroom, gone there, unlocked it… and found the drive.  Another way I could have prevented this would be regularly purging the drive, deleting documents immediately after I’d backed them up on another machine.

I’m chronically absent-minded — part of this is due to having so much to do, my attention pulled in multiple directions. Part of it is simply disposition.  I’ve always been prone to forgetting.  Once, in college, I found myself exiting the dormitory… still carrying my towel.  I’d intended to hang it on the door before leaving the room, but instead had just kept walking.  That was funny — indeed, often my absent-mindedness is a source of amusement.

But it’s also a source of paranoia. Each night before bed, I make a “to do” list for the next day (or several days).  In addition to the obvious reason for this nightly ritual (i.e., wanting to get the items done), I also do it so that I can go to sleep.  If I don’t create such a list, then I can’t shut my mind off and I can’t sleep.  By transferring the worry about all that I have to do (and thus am likely to forget) onto a list, I can relax enough to sleep.

And now, I’ve just created another source of anxiety.  I do realize that this is very much a First-World Problem.  I only wish that the realization somehow made the problem less real.  So, fellow absent-minded professors (and other absent-minded friends), may you learn from my negative example!  Take better care of your data, lest you pull a Phil Nel and lose it all.  :-(

UPDATE, 6:55 pm, 9 Nov. 2011: DRIVE FOUND. Huzzah!  See fourth comment, below.


  1. Beth


    Have you tried Dropbox? It is free for up to 2GB and acts just like a regular file on your computer; except everything in that file is backed up to the internet AND will sync with any other computer you’ve added Dropbox to. I have one folder on my computer and laptop and they automatically sync together so the most current version is always saved. They also have an app for the phone so you can access everything on the go. Everything is stored on the website so you can access it at any time – and since the folder is stored on my home desktop which is backed up, I have ANOTHER backup.

    Short version – I never worry about flashdrives or losing my data. Ever.

  2. Anne


    Have you posted a lost & found notice on the door of the classroom? In the Collegian? Maybe I’m too naive, but I hope there are more trustworthy students wandering in and past Eisenhower 21 than there are untrustworthy ones. I hope it turns up, Phil.

  3. Gloria


    Could’t agree more, Beth. DropBox is the best free application I’ve used in a long time. I love the fact that I can access files from three different computers as well as my mobile devices and from the web as well. The fact that they all remain in sync is just brilliant. Evernote is also worth exploring and very useful to those of us who aren’t as organized as we’d like to be.

  4. Reply

    Thanks, everyone! DropBox is an excellent suggestion — folks have suggested that via Facebook, too. I may not be able to cure my absent-mindedness, but… at least I can work to mitigate against its effects.

    The good news is that, thanks to Kansas State University’s Ryan Hagar and Aaron Kitch, the drive has been found! Aaron found it this evening while doing maintenance. I don’t have full details, but evidently, the drive slipped down behind in between somewhere. So… found at last. Whew!

  5. Reply

    Phil, I know how that feels. I lost my flash drive once – it had my entire dissertation and all dissertation notes on it (before I finished writing it).

    I second the dropbox suggestion. This way you don’t need to carry around a flashdrive, worry about whether or not you’re re-saving over a different version of something, AND share folders with others (co-collaborators, etc).

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