Don’t limit your spring cleaning to tidying your linen cupboard and sweeping the dust bunnies out from under your bed. You computer needs cleaning too!

Why clean, you ask? With hard drive space getting cheaper every day, the time it takes you to clean will be worth far more than the space you free up by deleting unnecessary files. The payback comes not in disk space but in brain space: instead of struggling through piles of irrelevant e-mails, contacts and calendar events, you can invest in a spring cleanup that will multiply your efficiency for the rest of the year.

My own spring cleanup was inspired by a recent interview with Joseph Smarr, the former Plaxo CTO who recently joined Google. Once Joseph made it clear to me that my holy grail of contact management was not going to arrive anytime soon, I realized it was time to find a solution that works for now.

Why would you want to clean up your address book? Let me tell you why I cleaned up mine — and point you towards related solutions that I’ll write about over the next few weeks:

  1. Get focused: With over 2,500 contacts in my address book, I had a hard time focusing on the information I needed and the people I cared about. The contact information for an old friend might include all 12 of the phone numbers she’s had in the years we’ve known each other; there have been times when I’ve picked up the phone to make a call, only to give up on the challenge of figuring out which number to use. Significant professional contacts have fallen off my radar because I don’t notice their name in a sea of irrelevant data.

    Solution: Thin the address book and create a list of top contacts that becomes your smartphone’s default contact group.
  2. Sync different: I now use my address book across four different machines (MacBook Pro, hackintosh netbook, iPhone and iPad) that need to stay in sync. I’ve been using MobileMe to do the job but in recent months it’s been deleting contacts. It made sense to clean up my contact list before the move — if only so that I can tell whether my new choice of tool is introducing garbage text or extraneous contacts.

    Solution: Try Google Sync, Soocial or Plaxo as a MobileMe alternative for syncing multiple devices — but be sure to choose the right tool for your specific needs.
  3. Be social: Contact lists have taken on a whole new role in recent years: as a social networking hub. If you use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or any other social networking too, you’ve probably seen the “invite your friends!!” buttons that offer to find anyone in your Gmail (or Yahoo, or Hotmail, or Outlook….) address book who is already on the social network you’ve just joined. Use each network’s “invite your friends” feature every 3-6 months, and you’ll connect with more and more of your friends and acquaintances across whichever networks you have in common. One of the great things about these friend finders is the way they help you reconnect with people you haven’t heard from in years: meanwhile, you don’t need an address book full of the names of people you may or may not ever speak with again.

    Solution: Use a separate Gmail account to store an expanded (and messy) list of all the contacts you have in the known universe, and clean up your primary contact list so it only contains currently relevant and accurate contacts.
  4. Choose the right tool for the job: I tend to use my address book as a catch-all database because it’s almost always open on my computer, syncs to my other devices, and is easy to browse or search. It’s where I file my social security number (on a private card of info for me), my husband’s shoe size (on his address book card) and our passport numbers (on a card labeled “passports”). That makes sense for storing information that is linked to a specific context (for example, if I’m calling Air Canada, it’s handy to find our family’s frequent flyer numbers stored in the notes field for my “Air Canada” contact number), but there’s no need to fill up my address book with every other random bit of information — all that does is add clutter.

    Solution: Move database information out of contacts and into tools like 1Password (for logins), Bento (for a structured database) or Evernote (for notes).
  5. Eliminate negative associations: I’ve been using an electronic contact list for fifteen years. As I’ve rolled forward from device to device and software to software, a lot of old contacts have rolled with me. If I’m never going to place another call to the guy who gave me an inappropriate gift in 1996, why do I need to be reminded of that awkward moment every time I scroll past his name?

    Solution: Use a separate account or software application to archive all the old or marginally relevant contacts that don’t need to see every day but don’t want to lose forever.

I’ll describe each of these solutions in more detail through a series of upcoming blog posts. And if you’ve got even more spring cleaning energy — or if your address book is already sparkling — you can dig into the rest of your computer by following the overhaul of my entire setup for personal information management: contacts, e-mail, calendars and notes. In the coming days I’ll share more tips and insights from the Great PIM Cleanup, ranging from the best way to sync address book groups to the secrets of consolidating multiple Gmail accounts.

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