“You’ll never make it,” my friend Steve said to me one day over lunch. “You’ll give up before the weekend is over.” He smiled in smug satisfaction, having issued a challenge that he was confident I couldn’t meet.

Throughout our lunch, I had been routinely checking my Blackberry for new messages and had even interrupted our conversation to type a quick reply. Frustrated by my distraction, Steve had accused me of being addicted to the device and its demand for responsiveness. When I disagreed, he challenged me to go through an entire weekend without using it.

The terms were simple and I was confident I could meet them. From Friday night until Monday morning, I would not use the Blackberry, either for email or as a cell phone, except in an extreme emergency. If I succeeded, I would win lunch at our favorite restaurant, as well as the satisfaction of being right. Both rewards made the challenge worth pursuing.

It began simply enough. I responded to a final set of emails before going to bed Friday night and then turned the Blackberry off for the weekend. When I woke the next morning, I fought the impulse to check my emails over my first cup of coffee. Throughout a day of household activities and errands with my family, I constantly reached for my hip where it would normally have been holstered and was surprised that I had created such a strong habit.

The pressure to know what messages had arrived began to mount and ultimately was so great, that I really had to fight to keep my commitment. Twice, I literally felt it vibrate on my belt – the signal for an incoming message – even though the Blackberry wasn’t there. More importantly, I began to have a very real anxiety that somehow I was missing things, falling behind. It was a palpable fear that I wasn’t connected.

And then it hit me. Maybe Steve was right.

If the Blackberry had become this dominant in my life, what was I really missing? What moments with my wife were ruined by glancing at my emails while she tried to tell me about her day? What risk was I taking by reading an incoming message while driving in traffic? And what opportunities to think, to pray, or to dream, were being lost as I filled every spare moment with my thumbs flying across this little keyboard?

The fear of losing my connection that weekend was real. But instead of my email, I should have feared losing my connection to my life and to the people who mattered most.

In the months that have followed, I’ve learned that my Blackberry, or any other device, can be either a powerful servant or a terrible master. The choice is up to me, and to you.

Here are three disciplines that enable me to make the right choice.

Focus on people first. Whether at work, or at home, make connecting with the people in your life first priority. When you’re talking with someone, really listen and refuse to even look at your device until the conversation is over. You’ll have ample opportunity for messages later, but you can’t afford to miss these moments of real connection.

Intentionally disconnect. There is an ancient archery teaching that says “You will break the bow if it is always bent.” This applies to life, as well. While you may feel productive by being on call at every moment, you really aren’t. Eventually, your energy and capacity diminish and an unconscious resentment of all you have to do begins to undermine your best efforts. Turn the device off and take time to recharge and reflect. When you return to your work, you’ll feel the difference.

Be effective, not simply responsive. I recently heard another executive cite the Blackberry as one of the greatest leadership challenges he faced. After my own experience, I believe he was right. If you are not careful, you will become obsessively responsive, spending your day reading and replying to every incoming message, regardless of its importance. Use the device to help you respond to important messages, but have the discipline to focus on the most effective use of your time and energy.

I won the challenge with Steve that weekend, but through his challenge I also learned to focus on the true connections to my work, and to my life, that make all the difference.

Author's Bio: 

Jim Huling is the founder and CEO of The Jim Huling Group, a consulting organization that enables leaders and teams to create extraordinary results. Jim’s career spans three decades of leadership ranging from FORTUNE 500 organizations to privately-held companies, including being CEO of an award-winning company recognized four times as one of the “25 Best Small Companies to Work for in America.” Through The Jim Huling Group, Jim and his team now offer the benefit of their experience to companies who want to reach and sustain the highest levels of personal, organizational, and execution excellence.

Jim is a nationally-recognized keynote speaker who has shared the podium with Stephen Covey and Jim Collins. He is also the author of Choose Your Life! - a powerful, proven method for creating the life you want now available on Amazon.com, as well as a monthly column, “The Business of Life,” published in SmartBusiness magazines around the country.

Jim was recently awarded the Turknett Leadership Character Award, recognizing CEO’s who demonstrate the highest standard of ethics and integrity.

Jim is most proud of being able to combine his professional success with a wonderful marriage of 30 years to his sweetheart, Donna, being Dad to two phenomenal young adults, Scott and Sarah, and “Papa” to his three grandkids. He is also an avid backpacker and white water rafter, and a 3rd Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo.