How to restore a previous version of that Mac document you messed up

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With Time Machine versions, you can recover old versions of Mac documents.
Did you delete an old version of an important Mac document? All is not lost.
Photo: Şahin Sezer Dinçer/Pexels CC

Have you ever ruined an essay by over-editing it? Did you ever mistakenly delete a huge chunk of a report, and not realize it until days later? Maybe you thought you’d saved another copy of that important document, but your Mac seems to have swallowed it. No problem, because your Mac saves versions of your documents as you go, and lets you browse and restore them. And it’s all built in to — yes — Time Machine.

Time Machine, not just for slowing down your Mac

Time Machine isn’t just for slow, annoying hourly backups to external hard drives. The Mac software also encompasses smart, automatic local backups of your documents, as you’re working on them. And don’t worry — you don’t actually need to be making regular Time Machine backups to an actual drive to make this happen. It’s just there, running on your Mac, automatically.

So, let’s say you screwed up something in that report, and didn’t realize it until you’d finished the rest of it. Where did that first section go?!? Oh man, it’ll take me a whole day to write that again. Step one is to breathe. Step two is to head up to File in your Mac’s menu bar. Click it, and look for an entry that says either Revert To… or Browse All Versions…

The weird world of Time Machine versions

Text Edit's version browser.
Text Edit’s version browser.
Photo: Cult of Mac

Click that, and you’ll enter the weird world of Time Machine, a Tarkovsky-esque dimension where the only thing that exists are floating windows. On the left floats your current, messed-up document. It’s marked as such (“current document,” not “messed-up document”). On the right floats a stack of previous versions, with the latest backup on top of the stack. Underneath the stack you will see a label showing the date of that version.

This is how Time Machine versions look in Ulysses.
This is how it looks in Ulysses.
Photo: Cult of Mac

To browse the versions, use the arrow keys to the right of this stack to go “back in time.” You can also use the timeline on the far right of the screen to jump back further.

Copy and paste works

Now, it’s possible to just hit the button under this stack of versions to restore an entire previous version of your document. But we don’t want to do that. We just want to grab that section you somehow “lost.” This is easy. You can copy from the older version, and then paste your clipboard into your current version. You can even type into your document in this mode. I’m writing this very sentence inside the Time Machine view. When you’re done editing, hit the Done button, and you’re … done.

Not all apps support Time Machine versions, but many do. Take a look at the Edit menu to find out if the app you are using does.