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

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Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. He is also a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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