Every year you say you'll be better at keeping your data backed up, but then life happens. You get busy. You get distracted. And the number of files in your digital life grows exponentially--all while you continue to relegate this critical task to the "I'll get to it" pile.

Sound familiar? Thought so. Backup is essential, yet most people neglect it, despite adding ever more files to their digital stockpiles. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the average U.S. adult with online access has an average of 1800 digital files. And growing.

We've found the tech that can help you get a handle on your backups--and help you stick to a plan. You'll find many options that lead to the same result. Part of your challenge is picking the ones that are best for you.

1. Devise a Backup Plan of Attack
Survey your backup needs, and think about what you have that is "live" data--your ongoing, working library of files--versus what is archival data, files that don't require changes or additions. Live data might include your collection of digital music and your business documents, while archival data might include your digital photos from the past five years. Think about whether you want all of your data to reside in a single place, or whether you want to spread your backups across multiple devices. Also consider your habits: Do you need prompting to back up, or do you want to invoke a backup at will?

Having evaluated your files and needs, you can better decide on a backup strategy--and on which combination of technologies makes sense for you. You'll likely settle on a strategy that encompasses various devices and services, selected from among USB flash drives, external hard drives (see our latest Top 10 External Hard Drives chart or peek at the newest portable external hard drives), network-attached storage (see our most recent Top 5 Network-Attached Storage Devices chart), and online backup.

Many hardware devices now include a backup utility as a matter of course; but whether you'll find that backup utility (be it a separate application or one that's integrated with the drive) useful will depend in part on the backup approach you've chosen. Do you want to back up all of your files? Or are you aiming to do larger, more-current sets while leaving the file archive to reside on a NAS or on a dedicated 1TB hard drive attached to your system?

In steps two through five, we'll identify some of the best technologies for helping you with your backups--and what situations and needs those technologies are most suited for.

2. Organize Your Files
Various software programs--including the traditional backup programs we rounded up recently, such as NovaStor NovaBackup Professional, EMC Retrospect Backup, and NTI Backup 5 Advanced--will find specific file types on your hard drive and back up those file types per your instructions. But it helps to devise an organized structure for the files on your hard drive; that way, you know exactly where to begin when you establish a backup routine in the aforementioned software, or if you ever do a quick-and-dirty manual backup (in which you simply drag and drop files from one drive to another within Windows Explorer).

3. Try Set-It-and-Forget-It Backup
Let's be blunt: Sometimes, deciding on what to back up, and where, makes the process overwhelming. And though acknowledging that fact doesn't negate the need for steps one and two described on the previous page, occasionally you want everything you own to be saved, with no brain activity required to get the process going.

A handful of devices make jump-starting your system backups dead simple. Among the most notable faces in the crowd is the Clickfree Portable Backup Storage Appliance, which makes backup supereasy. Connect this $180, 320GB USB drive (also available in 120GB and 250GB capacities, with up to 500GB coming sometime in 2009) to your Windows-based PC, and it will back up your data files, including your music, movies, pictures, and e-mail. The drive's built-in backup software kicks in as soon as you attach the drive to your PC; the software supports up to 350 file types. You can configure some basics, or just let the drive do everything--your choice. The drive can safeguard up to 20 PCs, and it does its backups incrementally (meaning that it does a full backup the first time, and then on subsequent occasions finds the new files and backs those up). Restoration is simply a matter of pressing the Restore button; the drive's built-in software will then return data to its original location.

If you have only enough data to fill a DVD or three, Clickfree sells DVD discs with the same backup software loaded. And the HP SimpleSave Photo utility uses an HP-branded version of the software for its discs.

Rebit Disk Drive Backup is even simpler to use. Just plug in the drive (available in capacities up to 500GB for $220), give the built-in software permission to back up, and off it goes, continually protecting you in the background. By the end of January, the drive's software will get an update that supports managing backups for up to six PCs to a single drive (a good setup for people backing up smaller sets of data, but not for users who have multiple PCs packed with multimedia collections). The company also now offers its easy-to-use software on CD, for use with any external hard drive; the CD costs $50 at its Web site.

Memeo's Autobackup software and NTI's Shadow are competing stand-alone applications that you can buy for real-time file backup; they can require more intervention on your part, however, than either Clickfree (which is not real-time backup) or Rebit (which is real-time, much like the Apple Time Capsule for Mac OS computers).

4. Use a Flash Drive
USB flash drives are ubiquitous, but nowadays 4GB is a baseline capacity, not the high end. And larger capacities--16GB, 32GB, and greater--are becoming more commonplace.

The benefits to using a flash drive can be multifold. You can store your files--perhaps both your critical documents and your multimedia files--on a drive the size of your index finger, and you can keep your data close to you, in your pocket or on a keychain. Many drives offer software encryption and password protection; still more include a file-synchronization utility. The SanDisk Cruzer Titanium Plus goes one step further by letting you sync the drive with Web-based storage.

SanDisk is going all out, however, with its newest offering (announced this week at CES), the SanDisk UltraBackup USB Flash Drive. The drive is expected in April, in capacities of 8GB to 64GB ($40 to $200). It has a retractable USB connector that slides inside, so you needn't worry about caps (or cables, as you would with an external hard drive). The integrated software requires no installation; instead, it just asks you for the file types you want to back up, and it initiates a backup when you plug the drive in; a button on the unit lets you launch a backup, too.

5. Send Data to an Online Backup Service
Online backup makes sense in some circumstances but not others. Certainly, Web-based services (such as the Webroot Secure Backup service) provide off-site redundant storage that can keep your data safe against natural and unexpected disasters (such as flooding, earthquakes, or fire). But online backup may not be appropriate if your data measures into the tens of gigabytes, or even terabytes (yes, snap-happy digital photographers and devoted music gurus, I'm looking at you). Content creators with high-capacity needs may prefer to keep their files on NAS drives and hard drives locally (or on drives located at secondary sites) rather than deal with the ongoing fees of Web-based backup.

That said, many sites offer some free online backup, as much as 2GB (Mozy.com and Fabrik.com, for example). Two gigs can go a long way for basic Word and Excel documents, PDF files, and PowerPoint presentations (the ones light on multimedia, at least). For your files currently in play, online backup can be both convenient (get it anywhere you find a Wi-Fi connection), and economical.

It's all about strategy--and what type of data you need to protect. Feel free to comment below, or visit the PC World Forums, to tell us about your approach to backing up.

This story originally appeared on PCWorld