Skip to content

Best Practices for Selecting and Using Data Structures in Python

Updated: at 05:45 AM

Data structures provide a way to store and organize data in a program so that it can be accessed and manipulated efficiently. Choosing the appropriate data structure for a given problem is crucial for writing optimized Python code. This comprehensive guide discusses the best practices for selecting and utilizing built-in Python data structures like lists, tuples, dictionaries, sets, as well as more advanced structures like stacks, queues, trees, and graphs when developing real-world programs and products.

Table of Contents

Open Table of Contents

Overview of Built-in Data Structures in Python

Python includes several built-in data structures that cover most common use cases. The main ones are:


Lists are the most versatile data structure in Python. They can store elements of different data types and are mutable, meaning the elements can be modified after creation.

# Create a list
numbers = [1, 2, 3]

# Append new element

# Insert element at index
numbers.insert(0, 0)

# Modify element
numbers[1] = 5


Tuples are similar to lists but are immutable, meaning the elements cannot be changed once created. They are useful for data that should not be edited.

# Create tuple
locations = ("Paris", "New York", "London")

# Convert list to tuple
locations = tuple(["Paris", "New York", "London"])


Dictionaries consist of key-value pairs for storing data. The keys are used to access the values. Dictionaries are optimized for fast lookup using the keys.

# Create dictionary
capitals = {"France": "Paris", "US": "Washington"}

# Access value using key
print(capitals["France"]) # Prints "Paris"

# Add new key-value
capitals["India"] = "New Delhi"


Sets are unordered collections of unique elements used when the existence of an element matters, but not the order. Sets are useful for mathematical operations like unions and intersections.

# Create set
languages = {"Python", "Java", "C++"}

# Check membership
print("Python" in languages) # True

# Perform set operations
A = {1, 2, 3, 4}
B = {2, 4, 6, 8}
print(A | B) # Union - {1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8}
print(A & B) # Intersection - {2, 4}

When to Use Lists vs. Tuples vs. Dictionaries vs. Sets in Python

Some key differences:

When to Use Stacks vs. Queues

Stacks and queues are more specialized linear data structures optimized for add/remove operations at specific ends.


Stacks implement a last-in-first-out (LIFO) policy. The last element added is the first one removed. Think of a stack of plates - you can only access the top plate. Common uses:

# Initialize stack
stack = []

# Push item to top of stack

# Pop item from top of stack
x = stack.pop()


Queues implement first-in-first-out (FIFO) policy. The first element added is the first one removed. Think of a queue of people - the first person in line is served first. Common uses:

# Initialize queue
from collections import deque
queue = deque()

# Enqueue item at end

# Dequeue item from front
x = queue.popleft()

Overview of Trees and Graphs

Trees and graphs are two of the most versatile non-linear data structures used in programming.


Trees consist of nodes connected by edges in a hierarchical structure. Each node can have child nodes but only one parent. Trees are extensively used to represent hierarchical relationships like folder structures or organizational charts.

Common tree operations:

class Node:
    def __init__(self, key):
        self.key = key
        self.children = []

root = Node(1)


Graphs contain nodes or vertices connected by edges without any hierarchical structure. They are used to model networks and connections.

Common graph operations:

# Adjacency list representation
graph = {
  'A': ['B', 'C'],
  'B': ['A', 'D'],
  'C': ['A', 'D'],
  'D': ['B', 'C']

Best Practices for Selecting Data Structures

Choosing the right data structure ensures your program remains performant and scalable as the data grows. Follow these best practices:

Requirements Analysis

Analyze the problem and data requirements first:

Usage Patterns

Consider how the data structure will be manipulated:

Data Relationships

Determine relationships between data elements:

Speed and Memory Usage

Balance speed and memory based on goals:

Tips for Effective Data Structure Usage

Follow these tips to effectively leverage built-in Python data structures:

Favor Simplicity

Prefer simpler data structures like lists and dicts until you have a compelling reason to use something more complex. Simple structures lead to cleaner, more readable code.

Use Helper Classes

Wrap data structures in helper classes with intuitive interfaces like Stack, Queue, or Node. This isolates implementation details.

Optimize for Common Operations

Structure your data to align with the most frequent operations needed in your program. For example, sorting a list only once is faster than repeatedly sorting.

Avoid Nested Structures

Limit nesting of data structures as it can significantly degrade performance compared to flat structures.

Cache Frequent Lookups

Keep a cache or dictionary of frequently accessed elements to reduce expensive lookups.

Use Dataclasses for Simple Objects

For simple data objects without custom methods, use the @dataclass decorator instead of a class definition. This generates init, repr, and comparison methods.

Pre-allocate Memory

Pre-allocate lists and dicts with known large sizes if possible to improve performance.

Testing and Profiling

Thoroughly test edge cases and benchmark with large datasets. Use profiling tools to detect bottlenecks.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid

Here are some common mistakes that can lead to suboptimal data structure usage:

Exercises for Practice

Some exercises to practice efficient data structure usage:

Exercise 1

You need to store credit card transactions containing fields like customer name, card number, transaction date, amount. Write a program to:

  1. Store the transactions in a suitable data structure.
  2. Print transactions for a given customer name.

Use the appropriate built-in Python data structure

Exercise 2

Implement a queue to handle processing jobs queued up by multiple threads. Requirements:

  1. Jobs must be processed in order of submission.
  2. New jobs can be added at any time.
  3. The main thread handles jobs sequentially.

Use Queue class from queue module

Exercise 3

Parse this text and store the vocabulary words encountered and their frequencies in an appropriate data structure:

“this is a sample text this text contains only this few words”

Print the words with their frequencies in descending order of frequency.

Use dictionary to map words to frequencies


Python ships with a versatile collection of built-in data structures like lists, tuples, dicts, and sets that cover most common use cases efficiently. For advanced usages, specialized data structures like stacks, queues, trees, and graphs provide efficient alternatives. By accurately assessing the relationships in your data, usage patterns and end goals, you can select the optimal data structures for the task at hand and write optimized Python code. Properly testing and profiling your implementations is key. Avoid complex data structures unless you have a compelling reason. Simplicity and clean interfaces should be favored. The exercises in this guide can help build competence in identifying and leveraging the best Python data structures for different scenarios.