Pandas DataFrame: How to calculate lag/lead of a column

Updated: February 21, 2024 By: Guest Contributor Post a comment


Pandas is a powerful tool for data manipulation and analysis, particularly for structured data. One common task when working with time series data is calculating the lag or lead of a particular column. This involves shifting the data backward or forward, respectively, to compare it across different time periods. In this tutorial, we’ll explore how to perform these operations in Pandas with various code examples.

Introduction to Pandas Shift() Method

The shift() method in Pandas is primarily used to calculate the lag or lead of data. It moves data up or down along the axis of the DataFrame or Series, allowing you to shift values backward or forward. This method is invaluable for time series forecasting, calculations involving past or future data, and more.

Basic syntax of shift() method:

DataFrame.shift(periods=1, freq=None, axis=0, fill_value=None)

Let’s dive into examples on how to use this method effectively for various scenarios.

Basic Lag Calculation

The most straightforward use case is calculating the lag of a column by one period. This means, for each row, the value from the previous row is taken.

import pandas as pd

data = {'date': ['2023-01-01', '2023-01-02', '2023-01-03', '2023-01-04'],
        'sales': [200, 220, 250, 270]}
df = pd.DataFrame(data)
df['lag_1'] = df['sales'].shift(1)


         date  sales  lag_1
0  2023-01-01    200    NaN
1  2023-01-02    220  200.0
2  2023-01-03    250  220.0
3  2023-01-04    270  250.0

This simple operation helps identify trends or changes in the data over time.

Calculating Lead

While lag shifts data back, calculating the lead involves moving data forward. This can be particularly useful for predicting future values based on current data.

df['lead_1'] = df['sales'].shift(-1)


         date  sales  lag_1  lead_1
0  2023-01-01    200    NaN    220.0
1  2023-01-02    220  200.0    250.0
2  2023-01-03    250  220.0    270.0
3  2023-01-04    270  250.0     NaN

By shifting the column in the opposite direction (-1), you can predict or examine expectations of the next period’s values.

Custom Lag and Lead

Both lag and lead calculations can be customized to shift multiple periods. This is particularly useful for seasonal data analysis or when considering longer-term trends.

df['lag_3'] = df['sales'].shift(3)
df['lead_3'] = df['sales'].shift(-3)


         date  sales  lag_1  lead_1  lag_3  lead_3
0  2023-01-01    200    NaN    220.0    NaN     NaN
1  2023-01-02    220  200.0    250.0    NaN     NaN
2  2023-01-03    250  220.0    270.0    NaN     NaN
3  2023-01-04    270  250.0     NaN    200.0    NaN

This flexibility allows detailed analysis and manipulation of data to uncover deeper insights.

Handling NaN Values in Lag/Lead Calculations

When shifting data, you’ll often encounter NaN (Not a Number) values. These appear because there are no data points for the shifted positions. One way to handle these is to fill them with a specific value using the fill_value parameter.

df['lag_1_filled'] = df['sales'].shift(1, fill_value=0)


         date  sales  lag_1  lead_1  lag_3  lead_3  lag_1_filled
0  2023-01-01    200    NaN    220.0    NaN     NaN             0
1  2023-01-02    220  200.0    250.0    NaN     NaN           200
2  2023-01-03    250  220.0    270.0    NaN     NaN           220
3  2023-01-04    270  250.0     NaN    200.0    NaN           250

Filling NaN values provides a complete dataset, which is particularly helpful in machine learning models and other analyses that require non-missing data.

Advanced Use Cases: Time Series with Date Offset

For time series data, you can use the freq parameter with the shift method to align the data with a specific time frequency, such as shifting by days, weeks, months, or even business quarters. This is especially useful when dealing with irregular time intervals.

df.set_index('date', inplace=True)
df.index = pd.to_datetime(df.index)

This shifts the entire sales data by one day using the DateOffset object.


Lag and lead calculations are essential techniques in time series analysis, providing insights into past and future trends. Pandas’ shift method makes these operations straightforward, allowing for various customizations to meet specific needs. Whether you’re interpreting seasonal trends, forecasting future values, or preparing datasets for machine learning, understanding how to effectively use lag and lead techniques can enhance your data analysis skills.