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What is Time Complexity?

What is Time Complexity?

In this blog, we will explore the concept of time complexity in a way that is easy to grasp yet formally accurate. We aim to help you understand how algorithms’ efficiency is measured as they handle varying amounts of data. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of why time complexity matters in computer science.

Table of Contents:

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What is Time Complexity?

Time complexity is a measure of how fast a computer algorithm (a set of instructions) runs, depending on the size of the input data. In simpler words, time complexity describes how the execution time of an algorithm increases as the size of the input increases.

When it comes to finding a specific item on my to-do list, the length of the list directly impacts the time it takes. A short list is a breeze, but as it grows, so does the time spent searching. Efficiency diminishes as the list expands, making organization crucial.

In computer science, we use time complexity to understand how the time taken by an algorithm increases according to the provided data. For example, when searching for a name in a phone book:

  • If the phone book has 100 names, it may take more time to find a specific name compared to a phone book with only 10 names.
  • If you had to search through the phone book one page at a time, it would take longer with more pages.

Time complexity helps us compare and choose algorithms that are efficient for different tasks, ensuring we can handle larger and more complex problems without slowing down too much.

Why is Time Complexity Significant?

Time complexity is highly significant for a few essential reasons:

  • Efficiency: It helps us measure how quickly an algorithm can solve a problem as the input grows larger. Efficient algorithms make software run faster and save resources.
  • Algorithm Selection: It guides us in choosing the right algorithm for a specific task. By understanding time complexity, we can opt for the most suitable one.
  • Optimization: Time complexity analysis allows us to make code more efficient, which is crucial in today’s digital world where speed matters.
  • Scalability: It ensures that our software can handle big datasets, making it versatile and capable of growing with our needs.
  • Resource Savings: Efficient algorithms use less computer power, leading to cost savings and more eco-friendly software.

Efficient time complexity is the basis of software design, ensuring both speed and cost-effectiveness while also contributing to a greener planet by reducing energy consumption.

Types of Notations for Time Complexity

Time complexity notations are a way to describe how the time it takes for an algorithm to run grows as the size of the problem (input data) increases. There are three common notations:

  • Big O Notation (O()): This notation describes the upper limit on the time an algorithm takes. It provides a worst-case estimate. For example, O(n) means the time grows linearly with the input size.
  • Theta Notation (Θ()): This notation specifies the exact growth rate of an algorithm. It represents both the upper and lower limits, providing a more precise analysis. For example, Θ(n) means the time grows linearly, and it either grows faster or slower.
  • Omega Notation (Ω()): The omega notation denotes the lower limit of an algorithm’s time complexity. It provides the best-case estimate. For example, Ω(n) indicates the time grows at least as fast as linearly.

These notations help programmers understand and compare the efficiency of different algorithms, making it easier to choose the right one for a specific task.


Big O Notation and Asymptotic Analysis

Big O Notation and asymptotic analysis are ways to describe how the running time or resource usage of an algorithm grows as the size of the input increases. They help us understand the efficiency and scalability of algorithms.

Big O Notation

Picture Big O Notation as a tool to describe the highest possible performance demands an algorithm can make as the input size increases. It offers a straightforward method to contrast different algorithms and grasp their effectiveness. In more technical language, Big O Notation defines an algorithm’s worst-case behavior, helping us understand how its execution time expands as the input size becomes substantially larger.

For example, if we say that an algorithm has a time complexity of O(n), it means that the algorithm’s execution time increases linearly with the size of the input. If the input size doubles, the time it takes to run the algorithm will roughly double as well. If an algorithm is O(n^2), it means the time increases quadratically with input size, and if it’s O(1), it means the time is constant, regardless of input size.

Asymptotic Analysis

Asymptotic analysis is a broader concept that includes Big O Notation. It’s a way to analyze how algorithms behave as the input size approaches infinity. It helps us focus on the most significant factors that affect an algorithm’s performance while ignoring constant factors or lower-order terms.

In simple terms, asymptotic analysis looks at how an algorithm performs for very large inputs, and it helps us compare the relative efficiency of different algorithms. For example, if you have two sorting algorithms, one with a time complexity of O(n^2) and another with O(n log n), asymptotic analysis tells you that the second algorithm will be more efficient for large input sizes, even if the first one might be faster for small inputs.

In summary, Big O Notation and asymptotic analysis are tools used to describe how an algorithm’s performance scales with input size and help us compare and choose the most efficient algorithms for the job. They are essential for understanding and optimizing the efficiency of computer programs and algorithms.

Interested in learning more about Asymptotic Notation and why its important in Data Structures?

Time Complexity Order

Time complexity order, often expressed using Big O notation, is a way to describe how the running time of an algorithm or program grows as the size of the input increases. It helps us understand how efficiently an algorithm performs for different data sizes.

  • O(1) – Constant Time: The algorithm’s execution time remains the same, regardless of the input size. It’s the fastest and most efficient.
  • O(log n) : Logarithmic Time: As the input size increases, the time grows very slowly. It’s efficient for large datasets.
  • O(n) : Linear Time: The execution time increases linearly with the input size. It’s still efficient, but not as fast as constant or logarithmic time.
  • O(n log n) : Linearithmic Time: Time increases a bit faster than linear but is still considered efficient. Often seen in sorting algorithms.
  • O(n^2) : Quadratic Time: Time grows as the square of the input size. It’s less efficient and can be slow for larger data sets.
  • O(n^3) : Cubic Time: Time grows as the cube of the input size, making it even less efficient.
  • O(2^n) : Exponential Time: As the input grows, the execution time increases exponentially. It’s highly inefficient and can be very slow for larger inputs.
  • O(n!) : Factorial Time: This is the slowest time complexity, where the execution time grows factorially with the input size. It’s extremely inefficient and impractical for larger datasets.


O(1) < O(log n) < O(n) < O(n log n) < O(n^2) < O(n^3) < O(2^n) < O(n!)

These notations describe how an algorithm’s performance scales with input size. The smaller the Big O value, the more efficient the algorithm. When choosing algorithms, you want to pick the one with the smallest time complexity that can still solve your problem effectively for your given input size.

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Worst-case, Average-case, and Best-case Analysis

When we delve into evaluating how algorithms perform, we typically explore three distinct scenarios: worst-case, average-case, and best-case analyses. These scenarios give us insights into how an algorithm functions under different circumstances.

Worst-case Analysis

In worst-case analysis, we look at the scenario where the algorithm performs the most poorly, taking the maximum amount of time or resources. It helps us understand the upper bound on an algorithm’s performance. We want to know how long the algorithm can possibly take, regardless of the input.

For example, in a sorting algorithm, the worst-case scenario might involve a situation where the input data is in the exact reverse order. Analyzing the worst-case helps ensure that the algorithm won’t perform exceptionally badly under any circumstances.

Average-case Analysis

Average-case analysis considers the expected or typical performance of an algorithm when applied to random or average input data. It involves calculating the average time or resource usage over a range of possible inputs. This analysis provides a more realistic view of how the algorithm will perform in practice.

For instance, the average-case analysis of a search algorithm may consider different ways the data being searched could be arranged. This helps us understand how the algorithm is likely to perform in practice.

Best-case Analysis

Best-case analysis looks at the scenario where the algorithm performs the most efficiently, taking the minimum amount of time or resources. It helps us understand the lower bound on an algorithm’s performance. We want to know how fast the algorithm can possibly be under ideal conditions.

For example, in a sorting algorithm, the best-case scenario might involve input data that is already sorted. Analyzing the best-case helps us identify situations where the algorithm performs exceptionally well.

In summary, worst-case analysis tells us about the upper limit of an algorithm’s performance; average-case analysis provides a realistic expectation; and best-case analysis shows the lower limit. These analyses help us make informed decisions about algorithm selection based on the specific requirements and characteristics of our applications.

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Types of Time Complexity

Time complexity categorizes how the time taken by algorithms increases as the input size grows. We’ll explore common types with coding examples:

  • Constant Time (O(1)): Time doesn’t change with input size.
def const_algo(arr):
    return arr[0]
  • Linear Time (O(n)): Time increases linearly with input size.
def lin_algo(arr):
    for itm in arr:
  • Logarithmic Time (O(log n)): Efficient for large datasets.
def bin_search (arr, target):
    # Algorithm not shown
  • Quadratic Time (O(n^2)): Time increases with the square of the input size.
def quad_algo(arr):
    for itm1 in arr:
        for itm2 in arr:
            print(itm1, itm2)
  • Exponential Time (O(2^n)): Highly inefficient for large inputs.
def rec_algo(n):
    if n <= 0:

Understanding these time complexities helps choose efficient algorithms for various tasks.

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How to Calculate Time Complexity?

Calculating time complexity involves analyzing how the number of basic operations an algorithm performs grows as the size of the input data increases. It’s often done using the Big O notation. Here’s a simple explanation with code examples.

  1. Count the Basic Operations: First, determine what the basic operations are in your code. These are the most frequently carried out steps.
  1. Express in Terms of Input Size: Next, express how many times these basic operations are executed in terms of the input size (usually denoted as ‘n’).
  1. Eliminate Constants: When counting operations, ignore constant factors and focus on the part that grows the fastest.

Here’s a practical Python function that helps you discover the largest element within an array:

def find_max(arr):
    max_val = arr[0]  # Initialize max_val
    for itm in arr:  # Loop through the array
        if itm > max_val:  # Compare each itm to max_val
            max_val = itm  # Update max_val if needed
    return max_val
# Here's how we analyze the time complexity step by step:
# 1. Basic operations: Assignment, comparison, and update
# 2. Express in terms of input size 'n': Looping through the array with 'n' elements
# 3. Eliminate constants: O(n) (we focus on the loop, not the simple assignments)

In this example, the time complexity is O(n) because the number of basic operations (comparisons and updates) is directly proportional to the size of the input array. As the array gets larger, the number of operations grows linearly.

Calculating time complexity involves understanding how the algorithm behaves as the input size increases, allowing you to compare different algorithms and predict their performance for larger datasets.

Example of Time Complexity

For example, given two algorithms to add n numbers with the same output but different time complexity, we can declare which algorithm is optimal.

Example 1:

def sum_recursive(n):
if n == 1:
     return 1
     return n + sum_recursive(n-1)
  • Time Complexity: O(n)
  • This recursive algorithm adds the numbers from ‘n’ down to 1, resulting in a linear time complexity.

Example 2:

def sum_iterative(n):
total = 0
for i in range(1, n+1):
     total += 1
return total
  • Time Complexity:O(1)
  • The iterative algorithm adds the numbers from 1 to ‘n’ using a loop, which results in a constant time complexity.

In the first example, the time complexity is linear, meaning the execution time will be proportional to the size of the input.

On the other hand, in the second example, we have constant time complexity. In this case, the time is consistent regardless of the input size. As we’ve learned from our time complexity hierarchy, constant time complexity is superior in terms of speed and efficiency compared to linear time complexity. Therefore, the second example is the best choice.

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Time complexity is a critical aspect of algorithm analysis, providing insights into how efficient algorithms are. 

AlgorithmData StructureTime Complexity
Linear searchArrayO(n)
Binary searchSorted arrayO(log n)
Merge sortArrayO(n log n)
QuicksortArrayO(n log n)
Breadth-first search (BFS)GraphO(V + E)
Depth-first search (DFS)GraphO(V + E)
Dijkstra’s algorithmWeighted graphO(V^2)
Kruskal’s algorithmWeighted graphO(V^2)
Heap sortArrayO(n log n)
AVL tree insertionAVL treeO(log n)
Red-black tree insertionRed-black treeO(log n)
Hash table lookupHash tableO(1)


Time complexity is a fundamental concept in computer science, guiding programmers to create efficient algorithms that can handle various inputs without compromising performance. 

By understanding the principles of time complexity and analyzing algorithms using Big O notation, developers can make informed choices, optimize their code, and create applications that are both responsive and scalable.

As technology continues to advance, the ability to grasp and apply these concepts becomes increasingly valuable, ensuring the creation of software solutions that meet the demands of today’s fast-paced digital world.

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Meet Akash, a Principal Data Scientist who worked as a Supply Chain professional with expertise in demand planning, inventory management, and network optimization. With a master’s degree from IIT Kanpur, his areas of interest include machine learning and operations research.