In sixth and seventh grade, I competed in the county Math Olympics. Yeah, in addition to being an athlete, I was a bit of a nerd.
There were different “events” at the Math Olympics and I competed in Mental Math, a fierce battle to solve math problems without the use of a calculator or even pencil and paper. One by one, the equations would be shown on the overhead projector, and competitors had but 10 or 15 seconds to solve the problem in our head and write down an answer.
In two years, no one beat me.
Yes, I was the back-to-back champion of Mental Math in Stark County. While I had an opportunity to defend my crown in eighth grade, I passed and decided to let someone else enjoy the glory.
I share this story of my math prowess not to brag, but to simply present the origin of my fascination with the order of operations. Knowing and applying the order of operations was easily the most critical component of success in Mental Math.
You too might remember the mnemonic device of “please excuse my dear aunt Sally” that helped so many to attack math problems in the correct order: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication and Division, Addition, and Subtraction.
What I’ve come to learn in the years following my domination at the middle school math level is that order of operations is not only key in solving math problems, but it has wider application in business and in life. The order in which we tackle problems can and does have a profound effort on our results.
While knowing the order of operations is important to success, it’s also easy to understand how and why we might come to ignore it. Things can easily snowball and it can feel like getting any work done is progress. While this is sometimes true, I typically end up looking back and wishing I had spent a few more hours or days mapping out the best way to attack the project. Pausing to ask “Is this the best next step?” or “Is this the best use of resources?” can save a lot of future frustration. While some things can be resolved through adjustments, for others there is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.
As you turn to your work over the coming days, weeks, and months, keep my dear Aunt Sally in your thoughts. Think ahead and look around corners to provide your efforts with the best chance of adding up to success. Avoid the allure of getting something done for getting the right things done.
It’s a championship strategy and I hope it helps you as much as it has helped me.