I bet your iPhone’s Contacts app is an absolute mess. Until very recently, mine was too. After a few years travelling and being single, it was packed full of random phone numbers from people I met once in a hostel or went on a Tinder date with. When there’s six Alis in the phone, it’s really awkward trying to work out which is the one you’ve been friends with for a decade.
Fortunately, getting a handle on iCloud Contacts is easy. You just need to take the time necessary to do it. In this tutorial, I’ll explain the process. I’ll mainly use an iPhone as that’s where you're most likely to use Contacts, but you can also use a Mac.
The best app I’ve found that can to do every step of the process is Cleaner Pro which costs £2.49 ($2.99) from the App Store. There is, however, a free alternative, Delete Contacts+ that does almost as much.
Get All the Contacts in One Place
The first thing to do is get all the contact information into one address book. There’s no point sorting the iCloud contacts if the Gmail contacts stay a complete mess. You want to pick one Contacts app and stick with it. That way it’s easier to keep things clean. For this tutorial, I’ll use iCloud as the main address book.
Most contact apps can export all contacts in a few different formats. The one you want to use is vCard. Follow whatever instructions your email service provides.
If you use Gmail, go to Google Contacts and under More select Export. Choose vCard and then export the contacts.
To import them all into iCloud, open Contacts on a Mac and select File > Import. Navigate to where you’ve downloaded the other contacts and select them. They’ll be added to the iCloud contacts. Wait a few minutes for them to upload and sync to any other devices.
Create a Backup
Before digging in and cleaning up all the contacts, it’s best to make a backup. You don’t want to accidentally delete your mother’s phone number.
If you’re using Cleaner Pro, open the app and head to the Backups tab. Create a new Backup and upload it to Dropbox or send it to yourself via email.
If you’re using Delete Contacts+, head to Backup > Back Up Now and then Export the backup file.
Now that you can’t mess things up irreparably, you may continue.
Clean Up Duplicates
Thanks to automatic contact saving, it’s really easy to have two or three separate contacts for one person. You’ll have one for their mobile number, one for their personal email address and maybe a third for their work email or an old phone number.
If you’ve been keeping the same address book going since the days of Nokias where you could only have one phone number per contact, you might even have a few holdover Harry Mob cluttering up things.
Both Cleaner Pro and Delete Contacts+ have varying levels of duplicate detection. Exact duplicates are easy to spot and simple to deal with, it’s the cases where a name is misspelled or the contact is just an email address that you need to pay attention. Don’t merge all your Alis into one contact.
Work through whichever app you’re using’s suggestions and merge any genuine duplicates. Take your time at it and your contact list will soon start to look a lot cleaner.
Manually Delete Contacts
Now that you’ve dealt with the low hanging fruit, it’s time to get into the deep cleaning. You have to go through each contact and decide whether you’re ever likely to need to call that person again.
Be brutally honest; you don’t need your whole high school class on speed dial twenty years after you’ve graduated. All those random people you met once or twice can go.
When I did this I was able to reduce my contact list from over a thousand to under 250 people. Impressive.
The iOS Contacts app, for some strange reason, doesn’t let you bulk delete contacts. Instead you need to use one of the third-party alternatives. Go down through the contacts list and ruthlessly delete anyone who’s number you don’t need.
Add in Extra Information
Now that your contact list is looking a lot tidier, add information. The more details you have on the contacts, the more useful it is.
Go through the contacts and add any relevant information you can think of. You can use Cleaner Pro and Delete Contacts+ to filter which contacts are missing in which fields.
For close friends and family, things like birthdays, websites, email addresses, international numbers and the like are all worth having. For professional contacts, add their position and company. That way, when you want to contact someone from a specific department, you can just search for that department and all the relevant contacts will show up.
This is the slowest part of the process and is, to a degree, optional. I just did it while watching Netflix over a few evenings.
Stick to a System
Tidying the address book is pointless if you don’t keep it that way. If you fall back into old habits, things will be as bad as before in a few short months.
Four simple rules will be all you need to keep things in good order:
- Don’t add any new contacts unless you know they’re someone you will see again
- If you have to add a new temporary contact, put Temporary in the Company field. That way you can go through and delete all your temporary contacts every few weeks
- Add in as much information as possible whenever you create a new contact. Adding their email when you meet them will stop your mail app from creating a duplicate contact
- Every few months, scan over the contact list and delete any you no longer need. You should also run Cleaner Pro or Delete Contacts+ to see if there are any duplicate contacts that have slipped through the gaps
Once you’ve sorted the contacts list, ensure it stays that way. As you’ve just discovered, it’s not a fun process to fix things once they’ve got out of hand. Fortunately, the tools to do it are readily available.
If you’re managing more than a few hundred contacts, the methods I’ve used in this tutorial probably aren’t powerful enough. If you’ve thousands of contacts in your rolodex, then something like Scrubly is an awesome, although expensive, solution.