Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Contacts + Building Quality Relationships

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar once theorized that humans can only actively maintain roughly 150 relationships. Today’s world, where the average number of Twitter followers alone is 208, this means we can hit the limits of our brain power pretty quickly.

As a result, we’ll need some help if we’re going to build a large, authentic, and productive network of friends and colleagues. Luckily, thanks to smart phones, social networks, email clients, and calendars, we can quickly “catch up” with long lost connections even when not there in person. But the web is filled with tons of options when it comes to getting your digital rolodex organized. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the best resources and projects that turn a jumbled assortment of contacts into an essential career tool.

A note: the downside of “optimizing” your contacts is that every service treats the people you know as data. This is why I don’t recommend any automatic emailing tools or one-size-fits-all templates. One of the great joys of your career should be the people you cross along the way. Tools help but they’ll never replace being an authentic friend and colleague. Keep that in mind whenever you see a new app or web service that promises to make networking easier.

Before you do anything, pick your universe.

The first step of the process is the most stressful: you’ll need to pick your contacts “universe.” For most of us, that means deciding between Apple tools like Calendar, iCloud, and Apple Mail or Google tools like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Android Phones.

What’s important is that you have a “master” contact file in either of the above services. Having your contacts spread out amongst a handful of services is the fastest way to get disorganized and frustrated. Pick your universe and stick with it.

I recommend choosing Google, for several reasons:

  • Google contacts can sync with iPhones. Apple contacts cannot sync with Android.
  • Google’s contact manager is a robust tool for editing contacts.
  • A slew of third-party apps work with Google Contacts and Gmail.
  • iCloud has made progress, but is still often buggy and unreliable.

(First we’ll get your contacts synced up across all of your networks. If you’ve already done this, or have a well-maintained contacts file, the below steps are optional. They are for people who want a rock solid database of contacts and are willing to spend an afternoon or two to get it. You can certainly skip to the heading “Maintaining Your Network” if you’d rather not — no hard feelings.)

Whipping Your Contacts Into Shape

1. Export all of your contact databases.

From years of internet use, you likely have contacts spread out across a variety of different platforms and email databases. Our first goal will be to combine your contacts into one slim, lean, easy-to-read, and useful database in the “universe” of your choice. For this guide we’ll be using Google.

First you’ll have to export your contacts from all of your social networks and email clients, and then import them into Google Contacts. Why combine them all into one? Because a good contact file has job titles, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, and more. It’s likely you have all of this information, it’s just spread out across a bunch of different social networks. The goal here is to do as little of manual work as possible.

2. Back up everything.

You’re going to be doing a lot of bulk editing to your contacts. In case you hit the wrong button or delete an entire letter of the alphabet, make a copy of those backup files and put them in a folder on your desktop.

3. Import into Google Contacts.

Now you have to combine and edit. Log into Google and visit the Google Contact Manager. Click the “More” button and then “Import.”


Keep an eye on the number by “My Contacts” to ensure that your imports are working. Google also automatically tags each import, so if one is botched you can quickly find and delete the bad contacts.

4. Get rid of duplicates.

After you import all of your contacts from social networks, it’s likely you’ll have duplicates. No worries, Google has a great feature that should condense all of your contacts. Click the same “More” button and then “Find & Merge Duplicates.”

Keep an eye on your contact count, you should have shaved off quite a few.

5. Manually edit (Warning: for power users).

You’ll probably still notice the odd contact you haven’t spoken to in years. Or the contact who has a nickname and thus two entries. To really get a solid database of contacts, you’ll unfortunately have to edit this by hand. There are three options here:

  1. Use the Google Contacts manager. Type “?” and a list of keyboard shortcuts will appear, useful for quickly deleting contacts in bulk.
  2. Use a database program such as Filemaker. For OS X, I recommend Tap Forms. It’s cheaper than more robust solutions at $24.99 and can be used beyond this project. It also has iOS versions so you can organize your contacts while killing time waiting for the train. That said, these database programs like Tap Forms and Filemaker have a steep learning curve and can sometimes be expensive.
  3. If you’re handy with formulas, you can use Excel. Though if you have a lot of contacts, it can be a cumbersome experience on an older computer.

Make no mistake: this is tedious and takes a long time but can help you wrangle your contacts into a manageable file that you’re more likely to update frequently.

Maintaining Your Network

At this point you should have a shared file with all of your contacts that is up to date. Now, there are lots of apps and tricks we can use to make your contacts even more useful.

Sync to your iPhone/Android device.

Having your contacts organized is useless if you can’t pull up the information on the go. Sync your Google Contacts database with your iOS devices and/or Android devices

Group your contacts by type.

If you have thousands of contacts and feel a bit overwhelmed, try putting them into groups. You can then show groups like “friends” on your mobile device and “business contacts” at your work computer. To organize your contacts in bulk, go to Google’s Contact manager, click the contacts you’d like to file away, and then choose the group you’d like to categorize them into.


These groups can also be used as nicknames in your “mail to” bar in your email, so you may want to keep groups for your roommates, family, friends, and officemates, among others.


Tag by location for traveling.

Thanks to your Facebook and LinkedIn imports, you should have the current city of most of your contacts. In the Google Contacts manager, search for cities and states that you typically travel to. Select all of the people you’d like to put into this group, then click on the group icon.


Then “Create New” and tag these people with the city they live in. I like to use the airport code for easy lookup.


This way, when you’re about to travel, you can quickly see the friends and businesses connections you can meet up with while on the road.

Keep current on job changes.

LinkedIn has a robust contact management platform. Most useful, however is the LinkedIn Contacts app (iOS | Android coming soon, they say). The app syncs with your contacts and can notify you when someone changes jobs or is promoted — perfect for a friendly congratulations email. Just download and check once a month.

Take better meeting notes.

Evernote’s Hello app is the easiest way to keep track of your meetings and what was discussed. For each meeting it allows you to scan business cards, mark meeting location, and attach notes to each meeting. It also syncs with LinkedIn. The app will automatically add your meeting notes to Evernote for easy searching when you get back to your desk. This allows you to search every meeting you’ve ever had so you can match the person with the conversation. The downside, however, is that Evernote’s meetings notes do not sync with Google Contacts or iCloud, so Hello is best if you already use Evernote in your workflow. Otherwise you may want to stick with the “notes” field in Google Contacts.

Never miss a friend’s birthday.

Facebook is usually the way most of us remember birthdays (aside from our close friends and family, right?). Luckily, you can see birthdays coming a mile away with Facebook’s calendar export option. To do this, log in to Facebook and visit the events page.

Then the setting gear in the upper right hand corner.


Then click “Export your friends’ birthdays”


If you’d like to take it to the next level, set your event alerts for the birthday calendar a few days ahead of time so you’ll be prepared.

Be a better conversationalist.

Before you have a meeting with someone, it’s likely you check their Twitter, LinkedIn, and other profiles to see what is new in that person’s life. Refresh is an iOS (Android coming soon) app that handles all of that for you. Connect your social networks and it will scan your calendar and give you an updated dossier on the people you’re meeting that day. The app includes everything from articles they’ve shared, job changes, shared friends, and more.


When using the tools and apps above, remember that they are just that: tools. There is no way to outsource real interactions. All these methods and apps should be doing is getting the tedious stuff out of the way so you can focus on what matters — building authentic and long-lasting relationships.

How about you?

How you do you keep your contacts organized?

Part 110 Tips for an Awesome Coffee Meeting
Part 2How To Ask People for Things Via Email: An 8-Step Program
Part 3The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Contacts + Building Quality Relationships

More insights on: Self-Marketing

Sean Blanda

more posts →
Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
load comments (28)
  • mookie113

    Perfect timing – I was procrastinating on a project that starts with organizing/locating my contacts into one place so now I can get to it – thanks!

  • Overground

    Or use Windows Phone, it does it all for you. People manager in WP syncs and links your contacts’ via linkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Outlook details under one name.

  • Ellen Delap

    Love these ideas to consolidate! It’s much easier when all your data is in one spot.

  • Vickie Siculiano

    Nice! I love using Google to collaborate and consolidate. Great when everything is in one place and is sharable!

  • mitesh

    i love using google

  • Ketzelle

    Google contacts? Are you serious? That may be somewhat useful if you have less than 500 or 1000 contacts.

    • dindangme

      agree. what about Outlook for Mac?

      • robrecord

        Ugh, steer clear!

  • Phil


    There’s a significant issue here that I would love to see addressed in a 99u article… how to separate (and yet also consolidate/sync) business and personal contacts.

    My company uses corporate gmail, and I use personal gmail. My company gmail account holds all my contacts, and these sync onto my iphone. But when I want to send an email from my personal account to anyone I’m not regularly emailng, I have to switch over to my business account and pull the contact info out of there and switch back to my personal email account to send.

    Not to mention, all of my contacts are in a company contact list. Anyone have ideas here?

    • Brad Patterson @ Kwaga

      You could check out our service, Evercontact, which auto-enriches google contacts by analyzing email signatures in your incoming email.

      More specifically you can choose to add both your personal and business gmail accounts and then choose which address book (personal or business) you’d like to be your master account where it will receive all contact updates from both accounts.

    • DianeDarling

      Try using tags

  • BostonDave

    Consolidated to Google Contacts a few years back and love it as my system of record for contacts. However, extracting the data into other apps (like on iOS) and be difficult at times.

    • Brad Patterson @ Kwaga

      Google Sync is pretty user-friendly for me, be it for desktop or mobile sync.

  • Thomas

    I am looking for the most basic of basic address book app for my iphone. My requirements seem simple enough …
    1. Does not require registering
    2. Free
    3. Does not require importing from my existing stock contact iphone app
    4. Contacts can be edited, added, deleted right on the iphone. Just like the stock contact app
    5. I’ll be using this app strictly for business so I don’t want my personal contacts to mix with business contacts
    6. Grouping would be nice (vendors, clients, sales, etc…) but not a deal breaker

    All the apps I’ve downloaded so far want me to log into Facebook or create an account, or register, or require I import my personal contacts. No, no and no. I just want a basic address book I can add all my business contacts right on my iphone. It seems so simple, yet, I can’t seem to find one.

    • robrecord

      Can’t you just use groups in your stock iPhone app to keep your contacts separate? Sounds like a major hassle otherwise to me.

  • DianeDarling

    Check out Contactually – I’ve looked at LOTS of options and they are very user-friendly for “bucketing” contacts.

    • Thomas

      Thanks for the recommendation. However, Contactually wants me to sign in. So obviously I have to register with them to use the app. I’m trying to avoid this and just have a basic contacts app I can store contacts right in my iphone. Additionally the app wants to import my stock contact list into the app. This won’t work for me. Again, thanks for responding. I hope someone has an app or solution I am looking for. I even when to an Apple store the other day and stumped a few workers there. They took my info and said someone will get back to me in a few days. I’m not holding my breath.

      • DianeDarling

        I’m not sure there’s going to be any app where you want sign-in. Otherwise your info is just out there for everyone.

        This article has some good ideas to manage on Google. If you’re looking to group contacts, you might want something more.

  • Κ@§ђ!ƒ @ђм@đ ♐

    Isn’t there any free application which works like #Plaxo?

  • Craig Algie

    A most informative page. How do I create sub-groups?

  • Marty

    im going back to pen and paper.After years of having an organized contact list digitally it is now a complete mess!! Thank you computer world!! all google contacts did for me was create about 6 contacts for every 1 i had and then could not find like most puter things anymore..they all do about 95 % of the job and then leave you hanging..yup pen and paper!!

    • Osvlaod

      You are right. A wast of time

  • Jennifer B

    Thanks so much for this article. It definitely gave me some direction on where to get started. I have at least 10 different email accounts and my primary is still Hotmail – but I won’t store contacts there because of viruses/malware over the years. It appears that Google Contacts or the other suggestions from the commenters will be useful.

  • Chris

    If you prefer a simple windows desktop customizable database solution for your contacts and other data, check out SuperRolodex. You can find it over at or

  • moreen Bonds

    Hello to every one i want to testify of what a spell caster has done for me,i was in a relationship for two years happy with my partner few months to our wedding he left me and went after another woman he never came back home again, i cry all day looking for help i have contacted so many spell caster but no result one day i was on the internet when i came across a testimony on how DR OYAKHILOMEN helped some one to get back his lover so i gave a try and it work out for me am so happy to have my lover back to my self again thanks once again DR OYAKHILOMEN for helping me to bring back my lover if you are passing through the same problem or any kind of situation and you think all hope is lost my dear is not. contact DR OYAKHILOMEN on his email :

  • freonpsandoz

    Is there any way to add/change the columns (email, phone, address) displayed by Contact Manager?

  • Angie Haering

    This article is a great tool! I also love the Refresh app!

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,140 other followers