How to find a lost Word / Excel / PowerPoint document, opened from email (Hotmail or Outlook Web Access), that was edited and saved — but is now gone?

Oded Ran
Mar 11, 2012 · 5 min read

This is a long post that I hope will help a few desperate souls out there: how to find your lost Word, Excel or PowerPoint files?

Google “lost file opened from email attachment”, “rescue lost word doc” or “word document that I opened from my email did not save on my copmuter” and you can witness the misery of dozens (thousands? millions?) of poor computer users who lost their dissertations, school papers or theses after they emailed it to themselves, opened the document, and saved it — just to discover they can’t find the files they spent hours working on.

I want to smash my computer
I want to smash my computer

It happened to me at least a few times and to my wife a few more. Worst of all, none of the explanations on the web seem to actually work! So for the sake of all you who accidentally ran into the same problem, read on (and if it helped, tell me in the comments).

I lost my Word / Excel / other file after opening it from email

The scenario is always the same. You:

  1. Opened a file from your webmail, typically using Internet Explorer.

Why it happens

This typically happens to users of Hotmail or Outlook Web Access (OWA), usually when you use Internet Explorer (especially versions earlier than IE9). Google Chrome is built differently (and better in this case, in my opinion).

In Internet Explorer, when you click on an attachment you have two options: “open” and “save”. If you clicked “save”, you’d be fine. You will be able to save the file somewhere (e.g. on the desktop) and continue working. The only way to lose the file is if you delete it or forgot where you saved it. In any case you can just search for it. In Chrome, any file you open is automatically downloaded and saved, too.

If you clicked, “open”, however, you’re entering zombie land. Word will show you the document (maybe after a warning that you opened a downloaded file). You will be able to edit and save the document regularly. But little do you know that you’re saving the file in a “safe zone” (technically, a system folder) used for files downloaded from the web. I call it zombie land because you have no idea that the files you’re saving will disappear the second you shut down Word. Worst of all, because files are saved in this zombie land, you won’t be able to find these files when you search for them.

How to rescue the file you opened, saved and is now gone?

Luckily, there’s a way to rescue these files, especially if only a short time passed since you’ve opened and closed them. Here are the instructions for Windows 7 or Windows Vista users, English version.

<disclaimer> Please be careful and follow the instructions closely, as you can cause damage, too. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, ask a friend to help. I’m just trying to help you but I can’t assume responsibility if something goes wrong… </disclaimer>

  1. Most importantly, do not try to re-open the file from your email. If you have done so already, you may have overwritten your file. You’ll know soon enough.

If it all worked for you, scroll to the bottom of this page and add your comment. I’m so glad I could help. Just remember to never, ever, click ‘open’. Always save documents to the right folder before opening and editing them. It’s safer and would save you trouble. Or consider switching to Google Chrome or the latest version of Internet Explorer. That’ll save you at least this sort of trouble.

27–7–2012 update: Cool! This post has been featured in Wired UK magazine.

11–4–2013 update: Thanks for all the offers for a free drink! I plan a worldwide tour after the 1,000th comment.

09–10–2014 update: 1,000 comments! Wow! Apparently more than 140,000 people viewed this post. Glad I could help.

Oded Ran

Personal blog of Oded Ran, covering technology, startups, entrepreneurship and business.

Oded Ran

Written by

Oded Ran

CEO (@TouchNote), Entrepreneur, Investor, Husband, Dad, Dog-Walker, LHR-LAX commuter.

Oded Ran

Oded Ran

Personal blog of Oded Ran, covering technology, startups, entrepreneurship and business.