Understanding Time Complexity in Data Structure

Understanding Time Complexity in Data Structure

5 mins read521 Views Comment
Updated on Oct 3, 2023 11:51 IST

Ever wondered why some apps run lightning-fast while others lag with just a bit more data? Dive into the mesmerizing world of time complexity, the secret sauce behind efficient algorithms to find the answer. Time complexity is a measure of how long a computer task will take based on the size of the input. It tells us how the time needed for a task grows as the input gets bigger.


Imagine you’re given a task, like sorting a deck of cards. If you have only 2 cards, it’s quick and easy. But if you have 100 cards, it’ll take longer. And with 1,000 cards? Even longer. Time complexity in data structure is a way to describe how the time you need increases as the size of your task (like the number of cards) grows.

Think of it like cooking:

  • Constant Time (O(1)): No matter how many guests you have, turning on the oven always takes the same amount of time.
  • Linear Time (O(n)): If you’re frying eggs for your guests, the more guests you have, the more eggs you fry. Double the guests? Double the cooking time.
  • Logarithmic Time (O(log n)): Imagine you’re looking for a specific spice in a large, alphabetically organized spice rack. Even if the rack has hundreds of spices, you can quickly skip to the section you need, making your search faster than checking each spice one by one.

In computer science, time complexity helps programmers predict how efficient their software will be, especially when dealing with large amounts of data. It’s like a chef estimating how long a recipe will take based on the number of ingredients.

I hope this gives a clearer picture of what time complexity is in a way that’s relatable and easy to understand!

Explore: Data Structure Online Courses & Certifications

Notations of Time Complexity 

There are several notations used to express the time complexity of an algorithm, but the most common one is big O notation

Here are various commonly used big O notations: 

Notation Name Example Explanation
O(1) Constant Time Clicking the start menu. Whether you have 10 or 100 apps, clicking the start menu takes the same amount of time. The action doesn’t depend on the number of apps.
O(log n) Logarithmic Time Searching for a word in a sorted dictionary app. Binary search is an example. You halve the list repeatedly until you find the word. So, even if the dictionary doubles in size, you only need one extra step.
O(n) Linear Time Deleting every file in a folder, one by one. For every additional file (n), it takes one more unit of time to delete. The time grows linearly with the number of files.
O(n log n) Linearithmic Time Sorting your files by name in a folder. Many efficient sorting algorithms (like merge sort) fall under this category. They repeatedly divide the list (log n) and process each item (n).
O(n^2) Quadratic Time Opening all pairs of files in a folder to compare them. For each file, you compare it with every other file. If you have 10 files, you make 100 comparisons.
O(n^3) Cubic Time Comparing every file in three folders with each other. For each file in the first folder, you compare it with every file in the second and third folders. It’s a three-level nested operation.
O(2^n) Exponential Time Trying all combinations of a password with ‘n’ characters. For each added character, the number of possible combinations doubles. A 1-character password has 2 possibilities, 2 characters have 4, 3 have 8, and so on.
O(n!) Factorial Time Finding all possible arrangements of your playlist songs. For 3 songs, there are 6 (3!) arrangements. For 4 songs, it’s 24 (4!). The growth is extremely fast as n increases.

The time complexity essentially captures how the number of operations grows in relation to the input size (n). The examples are designed to illustrate this growth in the context of familiar computer tasks.

Explore: FREE Advanced Algorithms and Complexity by Coursera

Examples to Demonstrate Time Complexity in Data Structure

O(1) – Constant Time:

Imagine you have an array of numbers, and you want to retrieve the first element. No matter how large the array is, it always takes the same amount of time to retrieve that first element. It’s like having a book and always opening to the first page.


def get_first_element(arr):
return arr[0]
Copy code

O(log n) – Logarithmic Time:

Binary search is a classic example. If you have a sorted list of numbers and you’re trying to find a specific number, you can keep dividing the list in half until you find the number or determine it’s not there. It’s like trying to find a word in a dictionary by opening to the middle, then deciding if your word is before or after that midpoint, and repeating the process.


def binary_search(arr, x):
low, high = 0, len(arr) - 1
while low <= high:
mid = (low + high) // 2
if arr[mid] < x:
low = mid + 1
elif arr[mid] > x:
high = mid - 1
return mid
return -1
Copy code

O(n) – Linear Time:

Imagine you want to find out if a specific number exists in an unsorted list. You’d have to potentially look at every number in the list. It’s like reading every line of code in a program to find a specific comment.


def find_number(arr, x):
for num in arr:
if num == x:
return True
return False
Copy code

O(n^2) – Quadratic Time:

A classic example is the bubble sort algorithm. For each element in a list, you’re comparing it with almost every other element. It’s like checking every pair of variables in a program to see if they have the same value.


def bubble_sort(arr):
n = len(arr)
for i in range(n):
for j in range(0, n-i-1):
if arr[j] > arr[j+1]:
arr[j], arr[j+1] = arr[j+1], arr[j]
Copy code

O(2^n) – Exponential Time:

The recursive calculation of the Fibonacci sequence is an example. The number of operations grows exponentially with the input size. It’s like trying to solve a problem by considering every possible combination of solutions.


def fibonacci(n):
if n <= 1:
return n
return fibonacci(n-1) + fibonacci(n-2)
Copy code

O(n!) – Factorial Time:

The traveling salesman problem, when solved using a brute-force approach, is an example. You’re trying to find the shortest path that visits a set of cities and returns to the starting city by checking all possible routes. It’s like trying to find the best order to execute functions by testing every possible order.

Explore: Top 80+ C Programming Interview Questions and Answers

Big O Notation: Understanding Time Complexity in Algorithms
Big O Notation: Understanding Time Complexity in Algorithms
In this article Big O, Little O, Omega, and Theta.It also explains different types of time complexities and why it is necessary. Big o notation is explained with real-life example.
Asymptotic Notation: The Language of Algorithm Efficiency
Asymptotic Notation: The Language of Algorithm Efficiency
Asymptotic notation has been closely associated with the development of computer algorithms and data structures. It is used to understand and improve the performance of both simple and complex algorithms,...read more
Space Complexity in Data Structures
Space Complexity in Data Structures
The space complexity helps to determine the efficiency and scalability of a solution, and it is an important factor to consider when choosing a data structure or designing an algorithm.


In conclusion, time complexity in data structure is a measure of the efficiency of algorithms. It is expressed as the maximization of the running time as a function of the input size. It provides a way to compare different algorithms’ performance and identify the bottlenecks in a system. Time complexity is usually expressed using the big O notation. It offers an upper bound on the growth of the running time. 

It’s important to note that the time complexity is only an estimate, and the actual running time of an algorithm can be affected by many factors. Such as the computer’s processing speed, the memory access pattern, and the implementation details. However, time complexity provides a useful tool for comparing algorithms and deciding which algorithms to use for a given problem. 

About the Author

This is a collection of insightful articles from domain experts in the fields of Cloud Computing, DevOps, AWS, Data Science, Machine Learning, AI, and Natural Language Processing. The range of topics caters to upski... Read Full Bio