How To Back Up Your Mac Using Time Machine

The Importance of Back Ups

If you have never been in a situation in which you have lost data on your computer, then be thankful. Finding out that you have lost data due to a failing hard drive or corrupted operating system software is a horrible feeling. When I say data, I mean everything. Yes, pictures, contacts, documents, files, folders, and the list can go on. Poof. Gone. Vanished. It has happened in my family twice. Take it from me, data loss is something you want to prevent or learn the hard way.

“But I have a Mac and nothing ever goes wrong.” Ha! I have heard that hundreds, if not thousands of times. Let me be clear, all hard drives fail. Think of your hard drive that stores your data like a car tire. They work great doing their job, getting you from point A to point B and they slowly wear down over time. In those cases in which the wear down, you start to get some ideas that it may be time to replace the hard drive – clicking sounds and files not loading to name a couple – as they age. In those case, the hard drive could last years. However, just like a car tire, hard drives can have blowouts. When they blow out, that is it. Your data is gone. Unless of course you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to a private company to try and recover it. Lets not go there.

Thankfully Apple has integrated an easy to use Back Up system directly into your Mac called Time Machine. Time Machine allows you to back up all of your files on your Mac to an external storage device, such as a hard drive, so you can restore them if necessary. This article will walk you through how to setup time machine, initiate back ups manually, restore specific items from a Time Machine back up and restoring a complete Time Machine back up.

Setting Up Time Machine

To get started using Time Machine you need to have the proper external storage solution. Why external you ask. Well, simply if you backed up the data to the same hard drive it is located on, what happens when that hard drive fails? You lose both your data and your back up. Oops.

Some external storage solutions:

  • External hard drive connected by USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt to your Mac
  • Time Capsule or macOS Server on your network
  • External hard drive connected via USB to an Airport Extreme Base Station on your network

The first time you connect an external hard drive directly into your computer, Time Machine will prompt you and ask “Do you want to use [hard drive name] to back up with Time Machine?” If you say “Use as Back up Disk”, it will automatically configure the drive to work with Time Machine. Two minutes later it will start the first back up.

Please be aware, if the external hard drive you want to use has data on it, there is a good possibility Time Machine will ERASE THE DRIVE to configure it to work. I suggest starting with an external hard drive that is new or you don’t care if it is erased. 


Pretty easy to get started, right?

So what if you connect your external hard drive and this box doesn’t automatically pop-up? You can still setup Time Machine manually from the System Preferences app.

  1. Open your System Preferences. Apple Menu () > System Preferences
  2. Choose Time Machine
  3. Click “Select Back up Disk”
  4. Choose the disk you would like to use.

What I find great about Time Machine is that you can back up to multiple disks. As you can see from my setup below, I use two drives. One hooked up to my Airport Extreme and one to my computer directly. I did this in the event of theft. Chances are, the back up directly connected to my computer will be stolen along with my computer. I also encrypted that back up. The Airport Extreme is hiding and should be safe in the event of a robbery.


Back Up Using Time Machine

Now that we have configured Time Machine to work with one of our external hard drives, lets discuss how to make it work. Wait…its automatic!

Time Machine will automatically make hourly back ups for the past 24 hours. When it is done, it will group those back ups together into one file to create a Daily Back up, then to weekly back ups, etc. etc. etc. When your external hard drive gets full, the oldest back ups will automatically be deleted.

There may be times you decide you want to back up your computer immediately. You can do that too.

  1. Choose the Time Machine icon in the Menu Bar. pastedGraphic.png (if it is not there, navigate back to Time Machine in your System Preferences. You can add it checking the bottom box in the Time Machine preferences. See the bottom of the image above.)
  2. Select “Back Up Now”

Having the Menu Bar option for Time Machine available is a great tool. Clicking on it will give you information of the last completed back up, if it is currently backing up, or if it was unable to successfully complete a back up.

That is it. Set it and forget it. I do recommend taking a peak once in a while and make sure that the Menu Bar option for Time Machine shows you a recent completed back up.

Restore Items from a Time Machine Back Up

There may be times when you delete a file or need to restore an older version of a file from your back up. Time Machine makes this an easy process.

  1. First, open the folder that had the original file you are trying to recover. For instance, if it was in your Pictures folder, navigate to that folder via the Finder and open it.
  2. From the Time Machine menu located in your Menu Bar you can choose “Enter Time Machine”.
  3. Find the item you are trying to restore from your Time Machine back up. The right edge of the screen will show you a timeline of your back ups, so you can use that to navigate to the point in time you want to recover the file from. Hitting space bar when the file is selected will initiate Quicklook so you can preview it before restoring it.
  4. Click “Restore” to bring the selected item back to the present folder.


Restore All Time Machine Data

There may be a time in which you need to restore everything on your Mac. Maybe you had to erase and re-install your operating system or your hard drive failed and needed to be replaced. Either way, there are a couple approaches.

Restoring from macOS Recovery is one of the first options you can look at. This is a good option if you simply want to “roll-back” your system to a certain point in time. At boot of your Mac, hold down Command+R until the Apple logo appears. It will take a while to load, but when it is complete you will see a box with four options. Choose the option to restore a Time Machine back up. After choosing the external hard drive to restore from, it will then give you a list of all your back ups. Choose the appropriate back up click Continue and follow the prompts to complete restoration of your data.

In most cases you will be setting up your computer fresh and not need to boot into macOS Recovery. Follow the prompts until you get to the option that asks “How do you want to transfer your information?” This is Migration Assistant.

Migration Assistant will allow you copy all of your files from your Time Machine back up to the new hard drive or fresh install of macOS. The process is pretty straight forward.

  1. Choose “From a Mac, Time Machine back up, or startup disk” and hit continue. 


  1. Connect your external hard drive back up source to your computer, if you have not done so already.
  2. Select the back up disk and click Continue.
  3. Choose the back up you want to use and click Continue. 
  4. Select the information you want to transfer. By default, everything is already selected and click Continue.


Now go enjoy the rest of your day. Depending on the amount of data you have, it could take a while.