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How to Organize Your Messy Contacts List

Purging clutter is easy. Now for the hard part: taming the mess of contacts you are keeping. If you’ve been syncing contacts from multiple accounts, you probably have a few duplicates in your list (or, if you’re unlucky, lots of duplicates).

If you’re storing your contacts in Google’s address book, you can merge those duplicate contacts on the web by clicking the “Duplicates” option in the left sidebar. (If you don’t see it, click the “Try Contacts Preview” button, which will bring you to the newer interface that contains the “Duplicates” feature). You’ll be presented with a list of contacts Google thinks are duplicates, and you can click the “Merge” button to combine each pair into one item. You can also view this menu on an Android phone by opening the Contacts app, clicking the three-line menu on the left, and tapping “Suggestions.”

If you’re using an iPhone, once again, you’re in a sticky wicket, since the iPhone has no built-in features to deal with this problem en masse — only on a contact-by-contact basis. (It’s as if Apple wants you to have a cluttered mess of contacts.) You can, however, use Google’s web interface as described above, or — if you sync your contacts with iCloud — use the Contacts app on a Mac to get rid of duplicates. Just click “Card” then “Look for Duplicates” and merge them together. If you aren’t using Google and don’t have a Mac, you can use an app like Cleaner to help streamline the process instead.

If you have work contacts stored in your office Outlook account, you can remove duplicate entries there, too, but you’ll have to do some fancy footwork, since Outlook can merge duplicate contacts only when importing them.

You’re in the homestretch now. You’ve got your list of important contacts, you just need to make sure each email, phone number and address is actually up-to-date (not to mention contact photos, if you’re a completist). Unfortunately, you’ll have to do a lot of this work yourself: While Gmail can import some extra information from contacts when you add them, this information can often be outdated. So grab that pile of Christmas cards you were going to throw away, check the return addresses and punch them in. Delete any old work email addresses that no longer apply. Since you pared down your contact list earlier — right? — this shouldn’t take too long, and you’ll have to do it in one big batch only once a year or so.

While you’re going through your contacts, you may find it useful to mark certain people as favorites so they’re easier to find or exclude from your Do Not Disturb settings. In addition, you can add contacts to different groups like Family, Work and so on, making smaller lists that are easier to navigate. These tricks aren’t strictly necessary — cleaning up the main list is going to matter a whole lot more — but they can be helpful for some people.

It isn’t fun, but when you’re done, your contact list should feel like a well-organized Rolodex instead of a mess of metaphorical sticky notes stuck inside a book. And the next time you send someone an email, you’ll know it’s going to the right person.

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