Fix Time Machine When Stuck on “Preparing Backup” in Mac OS X

Mar 31, 2014 - 91 Comments

Time Machine in Mac OS X Time Machine is by far the simplest way to keep regular and reliable backups of a Mac, and usually the automatic backups start and finish without any incident. On some rare occasions though, Time Machine may get stuck* on the “Preparing Backup” stage for an inordinately long amount of time, causing a backup to never start, let alone finish. It’s these failed backup attempts that we’re looking to remedy here.

We should point out that if you haven’t backed up a Mac in a while, say a few months, it’s normal for the “Preparing Backup” stage of Time Machine to take a while to gather data before beginning, particularly if you have a large drive to backup. What’s not normal is for the Preparing Backup stage to take 12-24 hours, getting stuck in that stage overnight or all day long, for example (unless perhaps you have some truly absurd amount of disk space, then it may take that long and be normal).

Anyway, having consistent and reliable backups is important, so lets fix this specific Time Machine issue in OS X.

How to Fix a Stuck “Preparing Backup” Issue in Time Machine for Mac

We’ll go through a multi-step troubleshooting process to resolve the preparing backup problem and get Time Machine working in Mac OS X again.

Time Machine stuck on Preparing Backup

Let’s begin:

Stop the Currently Failing Backup Attempt Before Beginning

The first thing you need to do is cease the currently failed backup attempt while it is stuck on “preparing backup”, this is easy enough:

  • Open the “Time Machine” settings panel within System Preferences (get there from the  Apple menu or Time machine menu)
  • Click the little (x) icon until the backup attempt stops

Stop a Time Machine Backup

When the progress bar disappears and it no longer says “Preparing backup…” you’re good to begin the troubleshooting process outlined below.

1: Trash the “inProgress” File

Now that the backup is stopped, the first thing to do is trash the Time Machine placeholder file found on the backup drive:

  1. Open the Time Machine drive in the Finder and navigate to the “Backups.backupd” folder
  2. Open the folder within Backups.backupd that is the name of the current Mac which is stuck on preparing
  3. Put this directory into “List View” and sort by ‘Date Modified’, or just search the folder for a file with a “.inProgress” file extension
  4. Delete the “xxxx-xx-xx-xxxxxx.inProgress” file

Time Machine inProgress file

The .inProgress file is always in the form of xxxx-xx-xx-xxxxxx.inProgress, where the first 8 digits are the year-month-day (date) and the next 6 or so digits are random numbers, followed by the inProgress file extension.

Just trash that file, it should be about 3kb or so.

2: Reboot with the Time Machine Drive Connected

Next, give the Mac a good old fashioned reboot while the Time Machine drive is connected to the Mac, you’ll see why that matters in a moment:

  1. Pull down the  Apple menu and and choose “Restart”
  2. Once booted, let Spotlight run completely (you can either just wait it out or watch the mdworker, mrs, and related processes in Activity Monitor)

This should cause OS X to re-index the attached Time Machine drive if it’s needed, which may be getting in the way of Time Machine backing up properly thus causing the computer to get stuck on “Preparing Backup” for a very long time. Even if the drive has been recently indexed by Spotlight, a reboot still appears to be necessary, whether to resolve whatever issues are occurring with backupd or not.

3: Initiate a Backup as Usual

Time Machine Now that the Mac has rebooted with the Time Machine drive connected, you can start a back up yourself. The easiest way to do this is through the Time Machine menu icon or the System Preferences:

  • Pull down the Time Machine icon and choose “Back Up Now”

You will still see a “Preparing backup…” message but it should be gone within a few minutes, depending on the size of the hard drive, the speed of the Mac, and the size of the backup to be made. At this point, your Time Machine backup will proceed as expected, so just let it run and you’re good to go again.

* For those who like to get technical, when “preparing backup” gets stuck, the actual ‘backupd’ process is usually doing nothing at all, with no disk activity or CPU usage shown from Activity Monitor, fs_usage, and opensnoop. Admittedly a bit advanced, but those tools show a definitive way to demonstrate this specific issue and resolution.


Related articles:

Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS, Tips & Tricks, Troubleshooting


» Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dan says:

    You are a genius thank you so much!

  2. Janus says:

    Worked also for me! When pressing Restart, my Mac would not start up – but I started manually (opening the lid on my MacBook) and then I tried to make a backup – yes, it worked!

  3. Mark G says:

    Followed the simple instructions… works like a dream. This has been foxing me for months but it’s so simple to solve.
    Many, many thanks.
    Mark G

  4. Sharon says:

    Still stuck on ‘preparing backup’…tried this process twice now…still stuck. Left it for ages in case it needed more time. Not been backed up for 2mths due to this ongoing problem.
    I’m not ‘techy’ and wasn’t sure about the ‘let spotlight run’ instruction…as spotlight didn’t appear to be doing anything (no dot in the spyglass, etc).
    Is there anything else I can try?
    Might my oldish external hard drive be the problem?
    Would welcome any help, thanks

  5. Pete says:

    Worked like a charm – started the backup right away upon reboot and completed fine. (October 2019 on MacBook with Sierra) Thanks!

  6. Chris M says:

    Thank you! Tried many other similar procedures, but this one fixed my problem.

  7. Frédéric A says:

    I had backups which could take days (days) to complete, and finally which were stuck. I finally found the reason why: one directory had a lot of files (more than millions, I had to kill the “ls” command as it was taking too much time). This was in /usr/local/var/cache/fontconfig. Once the directory put in the Trash, everything went back to normal.
    To find directories which have contained a lot of files at some point, use: find / -xdev -type d -size +100k

  8. Neal Jeff says:

    2 thumbs up! Totally fixed the problem I was having, thanks!!

  9. Stuart says:

    Advice on what to do if the preparation phase runs for like 5-10 minutes without a problem… but then it ends with out starting the back up process? (I have been using WD’s hard-drives on my 2014 MacBook Air with TimeMachine for years without a problem – but now it will not let me back up either one of my WD hard-drives.) Thank you!

  10. Nick Forester says:

    Where is this Backups.backupd file or folder?

    • Marcus Arroyo says:

      Nick, I had the same question when I came here, where is the Backups.backupd folder? Well, you will be pleased to know that if you read the following article, your question is answered directly and explicitly complete with screenshots and step-by-step directions:

      Reading the article located *above* the comments section was helpful to me, but you have to actually read it to find out how this whole thing works.

      Backups.backupd awaits!

  11. Riley says:

    Thanks for also including the technical explanation; I thought the process was stuck but it turns out I just had to wait for the “backupd” process to do its thing. I never would have known to look for that if you hadn’t mentioned it, and seeing it working in Activity Monitor proved that I just had to be patient.

  12. Jay says:

    A GREAT help to me! thank you so much for posting this article. It was the answer to this exact problem that I didn’t find anywhere else. Thanks again!

  13. Ken Smith says:

    Thanks for the post but NO help at all. I followed all prompts and am still stuck at preparing when backing up. None of these changes had any positive results at all. Not a sure thing……..

  14. David says:

    A little more help required, please.

    Open the Time Machine drive in the Finder and navigate to the “Backups.backupd” folder
    When I open the time capsule in Finder I get a list of the sparsebundles for the various computers I’m backing up. The other three are working perfectly, mine is stuck on preparing backup. I click on the computer name in order to try to access the backup files but I get “resource temporarily unavailable”. Trying to access the sparsebundle for my other computer also doesn’t allow me access so where are the backup files you mentioned – I obviously haven’t nevigated to the right place.

  15. NChandar says:

    Thank you so much for the tip and step by step instructions. Was planning to upgrade my Mac since I thought it could be a mac issue since my macbook air is over 5 years old. You saved me money. Thank you once again

  16. Katherine W Woodham says:

    Thanks so much! This worked perfectly and was easy to follow!

  17. Daniel says:

    ‘preparing backup’ still persists. Please advise. Thank you.
    (followed the instructions.)

  18. August says:

    You wrote:

    The .inProgress file is always in the form of xxxx-xx-xx-xxxxxx.inProgress, where the first 8 digits are the year-month-day (date) and the next 6 or so digits are random numbers, followed by the inProgress file extension.

    Those six digits are not random, they are the hour, minutes, and seconds that match the creation time of the file.

  19. Jerry says:

    Just ran through the protocol as suggested and it worked perfectly. TM is back up and, er, backing up!

    Thanks for the info and the valuable service you provide.

  20. Glenn says:

    I’m running Sierra and I have a Drobo NAS that hosts the virtual drive I am using as a backup drive for Time Machine.

    How would I go about to solve my situation since connecting my Mac to a virtual disk at boot is somewhat hard.

    Tips and links welcome!

  21. Anup says:

    Thanks for the detailed steps. I am able to backup my data in MacBook Pro. I recently upgrade my OS to mac OS Sierra and I believe restarting macbook with Backup drive connected did the trick.

    Appreciate your help.


  22. Chris says:

    MacBook Pro 15in Mid 2010 has been having Time Machine problems since updating to Sierra. The first backup after that took 28 hours!
    I have ensured the TM disk is reindexed (2.4 Tb free on a 3 Tb disk so no space problems) as advised in this thread and removed any Anti Virus software as apparently this interferes with Sierra, but NO improvement. TM is still very slow. Still preparing an incremental backup after 10 hours! This is absolutely unacceptable.
    Has anyone got any new ideas?

  23. Leon says:

    Just share my case on why ‘Preparing Backup’ always showing with no progress. My Time Machine hard disk gets full (9GB left with 2T full volume). Therefore when I started the backup and it was trying to clean up by removing the old backup to leave more space. It eventually took around 15 hours before the disk gives me 20GB space to start backup.

    Now is its backing up my 12GB content and needs another 12 hours!

    There is absolutely very little info to tell you what is going on and leave you guess everything by bug-in/out.

  24. Sven-Eric Matthes says:

    You sir are my hero!

  25. Steve Morton says:

    I have an issue with a WD MyCloud.

    Time Machine, does the ‘Looking for Backup Drive’ then ‘Preparing Backup’ Then just bombs out at that point and doesn’t back up anything.

    So I connected a USB drive to the machine as well. And when it bombs out trying to back up to the MyCloud it backs up to the USB drive each time.

    I’ve updated the firmware on the MyCloud drive, no change.
    I’ve removed the MyCloud from Time Machine and readded it. But it just says ‘Waiting for First Back Up’ all the time now.

    Any ideas?

  26. Drakkenmensch says:

    great information! This resolved a problem with a backup that just wouldn’t leave the preparation stage, thank you so much.

  27. Allan says:

    This didn’t work. That said, I went to utilities – > Disk utility -> erased the drive and formatted it in mac OS X journaled. Readded the drive to time machine and started it again and it did work !

  28. Dominik Hoffmann says:

    What do I do, if the backup volume is a Time Capsule or a volume shared by an OS X Server machine?

  29. Bill says:

    Thanks for the info! Bad on Apple for requiring a restart with an external drive attached to get this working, which is a study in bad practice on their part

  30. Christine says:

    Thanks so much, directions above worked like a charm for me!!!

  31. Nikki says:

    Hi, can anyone please answer the Spotlight question? There’s a few people who have asked the same thing as I need to know but no one has given an answer so I’m stuck! Whats Spotlight and how do I make it run? When I click on the magnifying glass on the top right I get a box saying “Spotlight Search” for me to type in, what am I meant to type?

    Please help!

  32. Heather says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! Worked like a charm! I thought I was going to have to throw out my hard drive but after a long time of being broken it is backing up again.

  33. Chris says:

    My problem is that occasionally, like right now, my Time Machine backup is stuck on ‘Looking for backup disk’ , which is my Airport Time Capsule, connected via ethernet, and then it fails, but when I use TM the next time, it finds my ext usb 3 HD and backs up to it fine.
    Failed backup message says ‘there was a problem with the network or username password etc.. but I have changed nothing!
    What is wrong and how do I fix this?, as it’s frustrating me no end.

    • PMS Warrior says:

      You may need to ditch the network settings, then reconfigure wi-fi and add the Time Capsule again. Make sure there is no interference on the network either.

  34. Mike says:

    What does it mean to reboot “with the time machine drive connected”? How is that done? Thanks!

    • Scott Lewis says:

      Mike, it means reboot with the USB drive you use for Time Machine plugged into your computer so it’s seen right away once your Mac starts.

  35. Graeme says:

    Thanks! This worked. You might consider bolding “let spotlight run completely”. I didn’t pay enough attention at that step, and had the issue repeat until I noticed it. Once I restarted and waited for spotlight, things work.

    Also, these are the steps for anyone not sure if backupd is running:

    1. Open activity monitor
    2. In the CPU tab (the default one), click “process name” to sort alphabetically
    3. Find backupd.
    4. Check if the % CPU is really low.

    When this article worked for me, I still had to wait about 5-10 min for the backup preparation to complete. But I knew it was different, because backupd was taking lots of resources.

    Thanks for the great guide!

    • Leslie Kunz says:

      Hi there,

      It didn’t work with me. i didn’t understand the whole spotlight thing. what does it mean “let spotlight run completely”? It never runs normally or should it? Do I need to do something specific?

      Also thank you on the tip with activity monitor. I was just wondering, how it can help me? What % is low and what should it be around?

      Thank you so much.

  36. Ginger says:

    Thank you. that fix worked for me.

  37. Zane says:

    i actually cant backup my computer, i have tried everything, i have lost half of all my work. so much effort. i want a refund on my computer, i need this to get fixed by apple

  38. sander says:

    Thank you very much!
    It drove me crazy!

  39. Robert.Walter says:

    Re. the file names: true, the first digits are the date, but the last group of 6 are not random, they are the time (in 24h format. You can compare this to the 12h time shown on right of line.)

  40. Damien says:

    Thank you, does the job perfectly

  41. Erika says:

    Thank you for this article! I have an older aluminum body laptop running Snow Leopard and it hadn’t been backed up in a year. When I went to back it up and time machine got stuck in Preparing I was worried about the worst. I followed your instructions and I was able to get it to completely run a backup.

    Spotlight took about three hours to completely index, and then when I ran Time Machine again after indexing it only “Prepared” for about five minutes and then began a proper backup. Thanks again.

  42. Drew says:

    Make sure to open System Preferences / Time Macine to see the status.

    I thought Preparing was taking a long time until I opened Preferences where it indicated it was Cleaning up old backups… so I wait a little longer and it backed up just fine.

    It may have been slow to Prepare because I reinstalled 10.10.4 – I Repaired Permissions, re-indexed Spotlight, reset PRAM — I’ve noticed mail and other programs launche and quit faster.

    • Drew says:

      Forgot to mention reinstall took aobut 2 hours the rest another 2 hours. Plan to have down time to do this.

  43. Joe says:

    “Once booted, let Spotlight run completely”

    What does this mean?

    I still have it stuck on “Preparing Backup”

  44. Jim says:

    Can’t find Backups.backupd folder?

    Back ups for years but always troublesome.

  45. Noemí says:

    That worked!Thanks a lot!

  46. Pras says:

    i have deleted the in progress files but i can’t seem to empty the trash. it seems to be stuck on preparing to empty the trash – a file thats just 3kb should just get deleted instantaneously. i have tried used trash it, alt/option + empty trash, even terminal commands sudo trash – i get multiple errors: invalid argument and directory not empty…i have ran terminal three times now..once overnight…and it just keeps listing those errors and then the end command but those files are still sitting in the trash

    this hasn’t worked yet. what should i do next? any help will be appreciated..thank you

  47. themacmeister says:

    I had a different problem. Using USB3.0 on Late-2013 iMac with Mavericks 10.9.5, external Seagate 2GB Desktop USB3.0 HDD, along with mbeat USB2.0+3.0 powered hub, backups mysteriously stopped 5 days ago. Just checked and it said Last Backup *5 freakin’ DAYS ago*

    Got a new backup done by restarting external, reattaching to USB2.0 port (seems the most reliable) and reselecting backup drive (700GB free).

    Strange thing was, the drive was connected and mounted and selected in Time Machine. I do occasionally select Skip this Backup, when it is interfering with an urgent CPU/HDD reliant task.

    Anyone else get this?

  48. Perry says:

    I’ve clicked “delete” on the .inprogress file…but for some reason it won’t delete the file. Any guesses??

    • Perry says:

      I’ve clicked “delete” on the .inprogress file…but for some reason it won’t delete the file. Any guesses??………………….Nevermind…solved it

  49. Peter Robinson says:

    In the latest Yosemite, these instructions no longer seem valid.
    — the Backups.backupdb folder is NOT in the time machine volume now, accessible through the folder. Instead, you need to locate it through Finder->Go->Go to folder and there enter
    /Volumes/Time Machine Backups/Backups.backupdb/
    –You will then see the name of the machine you are backing up. Double click on the folder, and you will get the list of devices you are backing up, including yours.
    — the xxxx-xx-xx-xxxxxx.inProgress is NOT a file, about 3kb or so. It is now a “package”, 5.3 GB in my device.
    — I deleted this package from the folder; I had to give my password to do so
    I did not attempt to reboot, etc. As far as I can see, in Yosemite this does nothing relevant to time machine.
    Now, having done that — I still seem to be no further advanced. Time machine is still “preparing backup”, as it has been for several days now. The “in progress package” is still, well, in progress, growing ever large.

  50. Paul Jackson says:

    Followed the instruction and it worked first time for me, thanks.

  51. John Holland says:

    I tried all of these procedures on my Leopard 10.5.8 partition. Nothing has worked. I am now getting cycling between Preparing…, Finishing… for several hours. Indexing took over 3 hours. Last backup was 2 weeks ago. backupd activity continues to indicate both CPU and Disk Activity. Backup disk image shows on my Desktop and backup Time Capsule Data file shows in finder window. Guess I’ll just let it continue for a couple more days, don’t know what else to do.

  52. Keith Mewes says:

    Simple fix that worked for me.

    I have a client’s MBP with issues due to the 250GB HDD being full. I wanted to run a backup before messing with the disk (it had never been backed up before).

    I plugged in a new Seagate USB3 HDD and started a TimeMachine backup. After more than 12hrs it was stuck on the indexing problem.

    Followed your instructions and now it is backing up without mentioning the indexing step!

    Thank you.

  53. Mark Armstrong says:

    Re above comment.
    Just noticed that all other items are folders.
    The in.Progress item I an trying to delete is a ‘package’

    Really doesn’t want to be deleted!

  54. Mark Armstrong says:

    Last back up was 19 March 2014. It might have been the time I upgraded to Lion but I’ve moved house etc.

    Anyway, followed your instructions but the deleting of .inprogress file unsuccessful.
    The process just keeps on showing the revolving blue/white bar.
    Items to delete shown as 0.
    Any ideas how to progress?
    Thanks for original post.

  55. John says:

    I’m having this problem since changing to a time capsule for wireless backups. But I cannot see anything like you describe. Instead of the Backups.backupd file I used to have with my old attached hard drive, I now have a folder called bands which contains literally thousands of files called things like 1a50d up to eb48 and also files,,, Info.bckup, token, Info.plist.

    So I can’t even do manual restore anymore.

    Any idea what’s going on here?

    • kjw says:

      I also have a folder called bands and nothing else. Mine doesn’t even show the file names as the spinning indicator icon never stops spinning. Since I can’t see the disk in disk utility I can’t even fix it in disk utility…. Don’t know if you are using OS X yosemite but for me its been a complete disaster. Worst OS X upgrade ever. Terrible Wifi connectivity.

  56. stephan says:

    FWIW, my “Preparing Backup…” also seemed to be irrevocably stuck, with nothing suspicious in the Console logs and not too much disk activity to be noticed. But I then opened terminal and ran

    sudo fs_usage backupd

    as suggested by Ph in one of the comments. And judging from the output it is actually traversing the entire file system for attribute data (which takes time, even though it is not causing as much I/O in Activity Monitor as I had imagined)…

    I imagine this is equivalent to a deep traversal, even though the logs do not mention that one was required. So the only thing here will be to sit it out – stopping the backup presumably just means the partial traversal will be discarded before a backup is completed and the state saved for the next iteration…

    • Marketa says:

      I found out the same.

      sudo fs_usage backupd

      shows it’s really doing something. No CPU usage is visible on Acitivity Monitor, however running:

      top -o cpu

      shows about 40-90% CPU usage by backupd!

  57. Joseph N. says:

    I deleted the .inprogress file and restarted. Prompted TM to “back up now”. 24 hours later it was still saying “Preparing Backup…”
    Stopped it and once more I deleted the file, restarted and asked TM to backup.
    I was hopping it will start backing up before I have to go on mandatory Social Security retirement.
    What could I be doing wrong? Other people were successful getting TM to work using the outlined steps.
    My external TM still has 34.5 GB available (on a 3TB external FW HD).
    Would appreciate any help I can get. Thanks.

  58. Daemion Cunningham says:

    What do you mean by, let Spotlight run completely?

  59. Catherine Kelleher says:

    I had same problem with preparing backup getting stuck, i deleted inprogress back up and restarted. I started new back up now saying 16 hours remaining? Why is this

    • The LEGOers says:

      Your previous backups maybe completely deleted. It will have to backup the entire mac again, which will take a long time (16 hours is reasonable)

  60. TT says:

    Sorry about the stupid question, not very computer savvy here, but what does “Once booted, let Spotlight run completely (you can either just wait it out or watch the mdworker, mrs, and related processes in Activity Monitor)” mean?
    How do I make the Spotlight run? Do I need to start anopther program or what? Can you please explain this bit — what should I exactly do?


  61. buck says:

    I would suggest checking console and filtering for backupd before going through this process. If it’s doing a deep event scan then it is normal for it stay on preparing for a long time and should be left alone.

    • Ph says:

      sudo fs_usage backupd will tell you what it’s doing, if it’s doing nothing then it’s safe to proceed

      • buck says:

        That is not completely accurate. That just displays File-system usage for backupd. There are actions that wouldn’t fall under that. I would suggest using console to be certain.

  62. r says:

    Why even bother with mdworker on the backup disk? Put the backup drive into Spotlight’s privacy section so it never indexes it. Done.

    • PH says:

      That’s good advice!

    • buck says:

      This is a BAD idea. If it’s not indexed it will not be able to backup properly. It has to keep an index in order to keep track of what has been backed up.

    • Howard says:

      Time Machine allows you to search within the backups, using the search field in the toolbar. If you disable mdworker, this sometimes very useful feature is not available.

    • Jerry Krinock says:

      In macOS 10.11, System Preferences does not allow you to do this. You will get this:

      ““Backups.backupdb” is a Time Machine backup folder. You cannot add it to the privacy list.”

  63. Ed says:

    Great stuff.

    How about a further article telling us how to fix the issue if TimeMachine resides on a network drive!

  64. Kees says:

    Thanks for the useful post!
    The six ‘random’ digits in the inProgress file actually show the time, displayed in 24-hour notation: hhmmss.

  65. Thanks for another useful article, but how about the other end of the process when TM reports, “Cleaning Up” for ages? (Actually doing it as I write this)

  66. This is awesome. Thanks for posting! Time Machine is great, but when it misbehaves, it’s hard to understand how to fix it.

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