Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nurses

As the new year approaches, take time to reflect on your career path

A nurse is smiling across a table that has a tablet laying on it

The new year is a great time to reflect on your professional journey. Start by purging any unwanted career-related “clutter” that slows you down or no longer serves any purpose. When studying the careers of highly successful nurses, seven attributes arise over and over again. With the goal of trying to refocus, reorganize and rebalance, see which habits make sense for you to cultivate in your own life.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nurses

1. Stay Active in Professional Associations.

Successful nurses recognize the multitude of opportunities and avenues for growth that come with being involved in professional nursing organizations. Groups like the ANA and Sigma Theta Tau bring nurses from all specialties together as part of a greater whole.

Specialty organizations like the Emergency Nurses Association or Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses give nurses an opportunity to connect with colleagues who share similar interests and experience.

Throughout each year, I meet dozens of successful nurses whose affiliation with an organization revitalized their careers. For example, Sharon enrolled in a formalized mentoring program offered by one of her organizations. The program connected her with a mentor who guided her in learning how to create abstracts and write proposals to speak at conferences. She went on to become a keynote speaker.

Through another organization, Sarah met the editor of a professional journal, who helped her publish her first article. Sarah then parlayed that experience into working as a nurse expert in the publishing arena.

Where can you start? Oftentimes, nurses everywhere share similar challenges. If you have a work-related problem, try reaching out to your organizations for problem-solving ideas from colleagues who have been there and done that. It will help you find solutions that work and avoid reinventing the wheel. You can also take advantage of the numerous other benefits your professional organizations offer, including free or reduced-cost continuing education courses, conferences, networking and scholarships.

2. Engage in Lifelong Learning.

We all talk about lifelong learning, but highly successful nurses take that commitment to the next level. They thrive on new challenges at work, often volunteering for committees or taking on train-the-trainer roles.

If you want to keep learning, there are few better ways than to teach. Try volunteering to precept new hires, which will test your own knowledge as you review policies and pathophysiology to ensure that you are the best preceptor you can be.

Also, consider your options for formalized education. Is there a new certification you can earn in your area of specialty this year? Would your career goals benefit from pursuing a higher nursing degree? Do you need to brush up on some prerequisites for your next educational objective? Consider educational options both within and outside the nursing realm.

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Suzie, for example, joined speaking and writing groups to grow her communication skills. Bruce took computer classes to help him keep up with the rapid technological advances in healthcare. Lisa pursued her MBA to become a more skilled nurse entrepreneur. Ryan took an art class, giving him a creative outlet to rebuild his energy between shifts.

Whatever the area, knowledge gained is something that can never be taken away from you.

3. Prioritize Time for Quality Networking.

Have you ever heard the saying, “You are the sum of the five people you hang out with most”? Highly successful nurses take this aphorism to heart, regularly scheduling time to strengthen their current relationships, branch out to make new ones and make meaningful connections with people who are doing the things they want to be doing.

Solid networks add fuel to your career, so take the time to nurture those connections this year. You might check in with a colleague you met at a conference, write a LinkedIn recommendation for a respected former coworker or invite a professional acquaintance for coffee. The time you spend will pay off in numerous ways.

For instance, Robyn, a hiring manager, was looking for a candidate with a detailed skill set. Since she did not have any qualified applicants for the position, she reached out to her networks. Forty-eight hours later, the position was filled.

Another successful nurse, Teresa, had an idea for a new product beneficial to nurses. She tapped into her networks to learn about crowdfunding, product development, patent applications, marketing and sales. She went on to create a successful product that enhances the work of the bedside nurse.

4. Maintain a Professional Image.

Successful nurses know that each time they step outside their door may be an opportunity to meet new people and experience new things. These nurses hone their image, giving off a skilled, confident vibe at all times. They come to staff meetings in professional attire, always ready to meet and make a positive impression on an unexpected guest.

Their written and spoken communication is equally refined.Think about what you can do to enhance your own professionalism. Do you carry business cards and a current resume? (At a networking event, you might want to have your resume file saved on your smartphone.) How is your wardrobe? Can you write a polished cover letter or professional-sounding email? Take time to work on these things — they matter.

Remember, you never know when you might have a chance to make vital connections. For example, while standing in line at a local store, Martha struck up a conversation with the gentleman in front of her, who turned out the hiring director for the position she was interested in! Luckily, she was prepared for the unexpected and made a positive first impression. A week later, she got the job.

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5. Establish a Visible Presence on Social Media.

We are living in an era in which social media can promote your professional image and build your personal “brand.” Successful nurses recognize this and maintain a robust online presence, including an up-to-date, highly professional LinkedIn profile and public-facing Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

This year, set out to build or bolster your online network through blogging or podcasting; writing guest blog posts for others; or doing TV, radio or podcast interviews on topics important to you. Leaving informed, thoughtful, well-written comments on others’ posts and articles is also a great way to build your professional online presence.

Why bother? While whom you know can be valuable, who knows you can make all the difference in future opportunities. For example, Keith branded himself as a LinkedIn and networking expert, enabling him to obtain coaching, writing and speaking work.

6. Be a Mentor and Have a Mentee.

Most successful nurses have a set of mentors who helped them achieve their success. These mentors may be other nurses who have traveled a similar path or non-nurses successful in areas like business or managing people. A mentor can be a great sounding board when your career faces challenges or a fork in the road.

Barbara was a charge nurse wanting to move into a director position. Her mentor guided her with tips for setting herself apart from other applicants and helped her land the job. If you don’t have a mentor, make a late New Year’s resolution (a spring cleaning resolution!) to find one this year. If you do, consider also giving back to your profession by serving as a mentor to others.

Russ mentored a talented younger intensive care nurse from the time she was a new graduate. She blossomed into a top-notch leader and educator; Russ ultimately learned as much from his mentee as she learned from him.

7. Focus on Self-Care Each Day.

Successful nurses recognize that practicing self-care on a daily basis is critical to overall health and wellness. Do you remove yourself from work multiple times a day — even for just five minutes at a time — to breathe the fresh air and touch base with your inner self? Developing that habit will make you stronger and more prepared to give to others. Finding the balance between work and self-care is essential and will make you more successful in the long run.

Self-care can mean different things for everyone: meditation; exercise; spending time with friends or family; or creative arts like painting, dancing and music. While self-care is often about soothing activities, it can also include stepping out of your comfort zone to try new things: going to a camp or a seminar, pushing your limits or working on overcoming fears. Conquering an anxiety such as public speaking might be uncomfortable, but will make you feel better and more confident in the long run.

Where to Start

Take action now to create new habits. Growth is vital for our personal and professional lives. If you aren’t growing, you’re stagnating, which is why it is so important to shake things up if you find yourself getting stale. Much like cleaning the house, all this can sound overwhelming if you haven’t been doing it regularly. However, don’t let that discourage you from getting started.

Decide which areas are most pressing for you and start with those. Write your goals down, including measurable objectives. Say them out loud and share them with family, friends and colleagues. We are more likely to follow through with our plans when others know our intentions. Sharing goals with trusted colleague also allows you to hold each other accountable and help each other where you can.

Here’s to a new year of growth, adventure and new networks, sprinkled with plenty of self-care and fun.

DONNA CARDILLO, RN, M.A., CSP, is The Inspiration Nurse (www.donnacardillo.com). She is the author of Falling Together: How to Find Balance, Joy and Meaningful Change When Your Life Seems to be Falling Apart and several career-related books for nurses.

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