Chances are, the smartphone in your hand isn't your first. And chances are, it's carrying contacts from three, five, even 10 years ago that you've been faithfully migrating from phone to phone.
My iPhone address book holds nearly 800 contacts including defunct numbers, contacts containing no information, and of course the requisite dozens of duplicate contacts. This is the result of years of syncing various email accounts and social media profiles. Blank contacts can be created when Android phones use Google Voice to message or call contacts. Allowing Facebook to sync contacts with your phone book way back when could have added tons of not-really-friends into your phone.
Until recently, I just ignored the growing chaos of my contacts list. If I needed to call someone who wasn't already in my favorites, I typed their name into the search box and never, ever tried scrolling.
But your contacts list isn't just for making calls. It also populates messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber. It powers your email contacts, and it rears its head in your calendar app too.
It's worth your while to clear the clutter in your contacts list and, at the same time, streamline your other accounts.
1. Clean up duplicate contacts
One of my friends is in my contacts list five times, with separate entries for his email address, his old email address, his Facebook profile and two phone numbers. You can merge cloned pals like this by manually opening each contact card, but if you have several to merge — and like mice, if you've got one, you've probably got a dozen — this process will be painstaking.
Instead, download a duplicate-killing, clone-merging contact cleaner app (unless you're on Windows Phone; see below).
iPhone: Check out the free Cleanup Duplicate Contacts, which scans your phone and presents you with a list of partial and total dupes. You then review the list and hit Merge to zap the doubles.
Android: If you use Google Contacts and your phone uses the Google Contacts app, you can go to contacts.google.com and select Duplicates. You can then go through and merge together any duplicate contacts. Newer phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S10, contain features within the Phone app for removing duplicates and merging linked contacts. If your phone doesn't, try Contacts Phone Dialer: drupe, a free contacts app that will analyze your address book for duplicate contacts.
Cleaning up duplicates is a good temporary measure, but dupes and extras will crop up again if you have enabled contact syncing for more than one account such as iCloud, Gmail and Outlook. To minimize upkeep, create a single, cloud-based address book.
2. Zap random email address-only contacts (Android users only)
If you're a Gmail user with an Android phone, you may have noticed contact entries that contain only email addresses. That’s because Gmail has a feature that automatically adds new people you email to Other Contacts (or Ungrouped Contacts) in your contacts list. The feature’s handy when it comes to auto-completing email sender fields but irritating when it comes to creating a phone book full of random addresses, from emails to webmasters or customer service accounts.
While the Gmail app for iPhone and Windows Phone doesn't sync to this folder, relieving iOS and Windows Phone users of the issue, Android users might find they've unknowingly synced their phonebook to these contacts. To delete unwanted contacts, go to contacts.google.com. On the left side, scroll down to Other Contacts. There, you'll find a list of all of the people that Google has added to your address book. You can add them to your regular address book or delete them there. And, if you don't want Google to add new contacts in the future, go to the Google My Account People & Sharing page, scroll down to Contacts and select "Contact info save from interactions". Then toggle off "Save contact info when you interact with people".
3. Create a single, cloud-based address book
Pick the email service you use the most as the destination for backing up your address book. I have both Gmail and Outlook.com accounts, but Gmail is my primary email. So that's where I'll create my consolidated address book, including Gmail contacts, phone contacts and backups of my contacts from Outlook.com and iCloud.
Export the contacts from any other services you use as a CSV file or vCard file. For email accounts, Microsoft Exchange or iCloud, head to the relevant website and to the contacts section to manage contacts, including exporting. If you have contacts that are saved only on your phone, Android users can do this from the contacts app; iPhone users must download an app such as My Contacts Backup for exporting contacts as CSV and vCard files. Contacts saved on Windows Phone are automatically saved online, accessible by logging into windowsphone.com.
Head into the email service you've chosen as your contacts backup central, click to the contacts section and select the option to import contacts. You'll be prompted to upload the CSV or Vcard files from your other accounts, resulting in that cloud-based, universal phone book you've always wanted.
4. Polish by hand
Not every defunct contact can be mass-merged away. Go through your newly dupe-free contacts list and look for entries that software can't spot. Delete people you don't know and numbers that you know are no longer in use, and update default numbers for calling (even your grandad probably prefers to be contacted on his cell phone instead of his landline these days).
5. Keep your phone clean
Now that you have a single repository containing all your cherry-picked crucial contacts, you can safely clear your phone of all its numbers — without deleting them from their online accounts.
iPhone: Go into Settings > Accounts & Passwords. For each account - except the account that houses your master cloud-based address book - turn off Contacts and Calendars. Turning off Contacts and Calendars will delete them from your phone, but not from the account. Then go into Settings > Contacts > Default Account and select the account that houses your master cloud-based address book. That will ensure that any contacts you add manually to your iPhone will be saved to your master address book. Do the same for your calendar by going into Settings > Calendar > Default Account and selecting the account that houses your master cloud-based calendar.
Android: Go into Settings > Cloud and Accounts > Accounts (or Settings > Accounts for Android 9 and higher) and turn off Sync Contacts and Sync Calendar for all accounts except the one that houses your master cloud-based address book and calendar. This will not remove the contacts from your phone. If you want to remove the contacts, you'll have to remove each account that you don't want synched and then add it back. Be sure to select each account after you add it back, select Account sync and then turn off Contacts and Calendar sync.
For Samsung phones, go into the Contacts app > Settings > Sync Contacts and turn off all accounts except your master cloud-based address book.
[Images: Woman using phone via Shutterstock]