February 1, 2024

Please excuse my dear aunt sally


One of the few lessons I retained from high school algebra was a principle called the order of operations.

This is a collection of rules that reflect conventions about which procedures to perform first in a given mathematical equation. The guiding acronym for the order of operations was pemdas, aka:

Parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction.

The way we remembered that was through the mnemonic device, please excuse my dear aunt sally.

Strangely enough, teachers never told us what this woman actually did that required a pardon. Sally probably got drunk and farted at the holiday dinner table while the family said grace.

That’s my guess, but hey, every family is different.

But despite never solving the great mystery of everyone’s favorite offensive aunt, the order of operations principle has broad application beyond the classroom. Sure, it’s a critical mathematical concept because it dictates how to calculate equations, but it’s also a useful tool anytime we’re faced with complicated tasks with lots of moving parts.

Because in any complex problem, there are multiple tasks that require our attention. Figuring out which pieces to solve in which order can easily feel overwhelming.

What’s more, if we’re not intentional about following a proper sequence, then we can waste time, lose money, burn energy, annoy our teammates and screw ourselves.

The simple question we learn to ask is, what’s the order of operations here?

I personally find it helpful to make notes so I can tease out all the linear relationships between tasks and prioritize them accordingly. Helps my anxiety tremendously.

Spreadsheets are perfect for doing so. In one column, we list every single possible item that requires our attention. Then we start compartmentalizing through sequential inquiry.

What foundational items need to happen first?
Which activities facilitate all of the others?
What are we not sure about that belongs in the middle?
What’s important but not urgent that can drop down to the bottom of the list?
What are our final mile tasks, and how can we work backwards from there?

These kinds of linear questions reflect conventions about which procedures to perform first in a given project.

Now, they are not as clean as predictable as the pemdas framework. Life is not an algebra equation, sadly enough.

But based on our answers, we should have enough data to start dragging and dropping. Rearranging our tasks from column one into their proper sequence in column two.

That way, the order of operations makes the most sense based on what we know at the time. If we use that tool, our anxiety should start to lift, our breathing should be easier and the project or task should start to feel less overwhelming.

And once that space opens up, we execute and build momentum.

What’s your version of pemdas? How do you think about the order of operations when attacking large tasks or complicated projects?

Remember, it’s not about being right about things, it’s about getting things moving in the right direction. The order of operations principle requires solid logical and linear thinking, but it also calls for humility and creativity.

Combine these elements, and you have a surefire tool for producing output that’s both fast and good.

Your dear aunt sally would be proud of you.

Are you intentional about following the best sequence for your work?