Multitasking is the act of doing multiple things at once. It is often encouraged among office workers and students, because it is believed that multitasking is more efficient than focusing on a single task at once. Numerous studies on multitasking have been carried out, with mixed results. It would appear that in some cases, multitasking is indeed an effective way to utilize time, while in other instances, the quality of the work suffers as a result of split attention.
The term initially emerged in the tech industry, to describe a computer's single central processing unit performing multiple tasks. Early computers were capable of performing only one function at once, although sometimes very quickly. Later computers were able to run a wide assortment of programs; in fact, your computer is multitasking right now as it runs your web browser and any other programs you might have open, along with the basic programs which start every time you log on to your operating system.
In the late 1990s, people began to use “multitasking” to describe humans, especially in office environments. A secretary might be said to be multitasking when she or he answers phones, responds to emails, generates a report, and edits a form letter simultaneously. The ability of the human mind to focus on multiple tasks at once is rather amazing; the American Psychological Association calls this the “executive control” of the brain. The executive control allows the brain to delegate tasks while skimming material and determining the best way to process it.
While accomplishing multiple things at once appears more efficient on the surface, it can come with hidden costs. Certain complex higher order tasks, for example, demand the full function of the brain; most people wouldn't want brain surgeons multitasking, for example. Insufficient attention can cause errors while multitasking, and switching between content and different media formats can have a detrimental effect as well.
A certain amount of multitasking has become necessary and expected in many industries, and job seekers often list the ability to multitask as a skill on their resumes. Students also find this skill very valuable, since it allows them to take notes while processing lecture information, or work on homework for one course while thinking about another. When you do decide to multitask, make sure to check your work carefully, to ensure that it is of high quality, and consider abandoning multitasking for certain tasks if you notice a decline.