Goal Setting in Nursing: How to Set SMART Nursing Goals

Setting career goals for yourself will go a long way toward helping you become a successful nurse. Here are our tips for goal-setting the SMART way.

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As a new nurse, goal setting is a critical skill to develop because it will help you stay focused and determined as you advance through your nursing career. Use this guide to help you plan out the next five years.

Why Is It Important to Set Goals?

For the most part, having goals helps give you direction in your career, as well as a greater sense of purpose. Creating objectives to achieve can help motivate you and keep your mind on track when you start to feel stressed or frustrated. Plus, the simple act of setting career goals gives you the chance to take stock of the professional strengths you already have, as well as the skills you still need to develop or improve upon.

How to Choose Your Nursing Goals

The SMART acronym is a helpful way to develop solid and reasonable goals. According to this strategy, a good goal must be:

  • Specific;
  • Measurable;
  • Achievable;
  • Realistic; and
  • Time-Bound.

We’ll walk you through what’s involved in each layer of the goal-setting process and give you examples of ones that meet the SMART criteria.

  • Specific: A “specific” goal is one that’s clear and precise, rather than vague. For example, rather than saying that you want to improve your knowledge of mental health, consider committing to attending at least two conferences about depression and anxiety in the coming year.

  • Measurable: A “measurable” goal is one that’s easily measured so that you have some way of defining what “success” looks like for you. For example, you could set a goal of receiving a five-percent pay raise within the next three years.

  • Achievable: An “achievable” goal is one that gives you just enough of a challenge to be compelling, but isn’t impossible. Additionally, you’ll also need to have the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to accomplish it. For example, as a nursing student, you probably didn’t have any time to do any reading outside of your schoolwork. Now that you’re a professional and have days off to spend how you’d like, you could set a goal of reading five industry- or specialty-related articles a week as a way to continue your professional development.

  • Realistic: A “realistic” goal is one that’s relevant to your current priorities, and one that fits naturally within your short- and long-term career plans. Say that it’s always been your dream to work as a neuroscience nurse in San Francisco. But, with your family on the East Coast and your children still in school, you’re not sure how realistic that is. However, you can break it up into smaller, bite-sized goals that will help you make progress toward that final result. For example, one goal could be to find 10 hospitals and facilities in the Bay Area where you’d want to work and establish contacts at each.

  • Time-Bound: A “time-bound” goal is one that has a set timeline within which to accomplish it. This will help you keep yourself on track and refocus if you start to veer off course. Without a set deadline, it can become far too easy to procrastinate. For example, say that your goal was simply to take the NCLEX. In this situation, the lack of an established timeline makes it harder for you to keep yourself on track and hold yourself accountable for getting to the finish line. Instead, make things easier by setting a finite amount of time to complete this goal, such as 6 months.

Tips for Achieving Your Nursing Goals

In a way, goal setting is easy; it’s the follow-through that can be hard. Here are four steps to help you achieve your professional goals with ease.

  1. Write Them Down. Writing down your goals helps make them more real and tangible. This will also help you identify any details that you may need to tweak so that your goal is as SMART as possible.
  2. Track Them. Tracking the progress you make toward your goals helps you stay on task and lets you know when you’ve achieved what you’ve set out to do.
  3. Celebrate Small Victories. While big goals are important, you should also make sure to celebrate the small victories you make along the way. Focusing on the little milestones you hit will help you stay motivated and make your larger goals seem less intimidating. For example, if your goal is to get into an MSN program, a small victory could be finally taking the CRE after putting it off for so long.
  4. Run Your Own Race. Your goals should be yours and yours alone. Don’t let yourself be influenced by your colleagues or friends and what they’re trying to accomplish. When you’re working toward goals that matter to you, you’ll be more likely to achieve them. If you start to focus on what other people are doing, you run the risk of veering way off course and finding yourself in a situation you didn’t want to be in to begin with.
  5. Understand Your Motivations. You shouldn’t set goals simply for the sake of setting goals. Explore your deeper motivations and use them to fuel your fire.

Goal Setting in Nursing: 10 Sample SMART Goals

When you’re in goal-setting mode, consider all areas where you could improve your skills and job performance. Here are 10 sample goals you could set for yourself within your first five years of nursing.


  • I’ll complete all critical tasks by the time my shift ends.
  • I’ll delegate or ask for help whenever I feel overwhelmed.

Performance Accuracy

  • Within two weeks, I want to understand the policies and procedures for the medications I can administer.
  • Within 10 minutes of leaving a patient, I’ll chart all my interactions with them while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Patient Care Improvements

  • Before I go on break or end my shift, I’ll spend no less than five minutes talking to the new nurse about my patients’ details and instructions for their care.
  • Within two weeks, I’ll figure out two or three topics that each patient cares about so I can take their mind off of their medical situation.


  • Within three months, I’ll find a mentor and make plans to speak with them on a weekly basis, either face-to-face or over the phone.
  • In my fifth year in the field, I’ll pay it forward by finding a new nurse to mentor.

Career Planning

  • In the next year, I’ll attend at least two nursing conferences. Ideally, one of them will be geared toward my specialty.
  • I’ll complete my MSN within the next four years.

As you can see, all these goals satisfy every element of the SMART strategy. This makes them good goals for entry-level nurses working in a variety of different specialties.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Cinch™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice. For our full disclaimer, click here.

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