Overcoming Overwhelm — What’s in Your Toolbox?

Cynthia Leung
5 min readNov 8, 2021


If you’re like me, you’re susceptible to feeling overwhelmed when you do too many things. It can make me feel powerless or distracted when there is too much to address. Does anyone else here clean your room spotless when there’s a major deadline?

As I write this piece, it’s in direct reflection of the trying day today was. Work had three major setbacks, I did not sleep well the night before, I had some personal relationships I had to work through, I felt unprepared for the class I had, the list goes on…

I don’t know about you, but in moments like these, I sometimes lean in to my sorrows and wallow in my own self pity. “Woe is me!,” I think to myself as I sit there in my chair, slouched. Helpless. I try to get up and check another item off my To Do list only to start, stop, and then get distracted by another task. One thing starts to snowball over the next until before I know it, I’ve entered the death scroll on social media. I am now lost for 20 minutes scanning through pictures and videos before realizing guiltily that I’ve just wasted precious time that I needed for my To Do list. The compounding problems are piling up without solutions.

The good news is…there is a way to break this cycle or at least I’ve found one way of breaking it. I’m sharing it with you today in case it helps you break yours. I call this my toolbox.

I’m the type of person where if you ask me how I am doing, I will give you a very honest answer the majority of the time. You will know when I’m having a good day, and you will know when it is bad. I once confided in a close friend of mine and when he asked me how I was doing, I told him bluntly that I was feeling overwhelmed. He asked me about what, I answered about work and school, and he followed up with this question: “Do you have a toolbox?”

It was the first time I was ever asked to think about what I do in situations where I get overwhelmed. Instead of feeling like I was down on the ground trying to overcome my challenges, I began to think about how I might pick myself up. As a result, I created this toolbox that became my go-to plan for days like this.

  1. Pinpoint exactly what set off my mood. This can be done in many ways. The way I do it is I sit down, close my eyes, and go through my day step by step to see at what point my mood went from being good to bad. I note it.
  2. Identify what can be done about that event, relationship, task. What action can remedy this? Is this an something that I just need to let go of? For example, if my mood was set off by some random person on the street being rude to me earlier in the day, the only thing I can do is take a few deep breathes, know that I can’t change the past or this person, practice some compassion (maybe they were just having a bad day), and let it go. Letting go can take the form of writing about it. It could be me changing my perspective on the situation. If it’s getting disappointing news, then how can I do something constructive and positive about it instead of letting the feeling eat me up inside? Maybe it’s showing up more prepared the next time an opportunity arises.
  3. Write out every task I think I need to do “right now.” When I’m feeling overwhelmed, my brain is running on hyperdrive and seemingly everything is urgent. A special practice of mine is to write my to do list in the form of a mind map. Writing down my to do list on paper reduces my brain’s cognitive energy spent on remembering my list. Writing it as a mind map removes the brain’s prioritizing process. It instead allows me to see the tasks in front of me. I start by writing the date in the middle of a blank paper. From there I write any task I need to do on any part of the paper and connect a line from that task to the box in the middle.
  4. Assess my task list and identify what 2–3 tasks need to get done to make me feel ok again. After I have written every task down, I look at this matrix of items and number them by most urgent to least. From here, I select the most important tasks from my extensive list and tell myself that by completing these actions, I have already made progress.
  5. Breathe and review my action plan of 2–3 tasks. When I envision completion of these things, will I at least be “ok” again? If the answer is no, is there someone I can reach out to who can give me that moral support to keep me going or help me process what I need to? I’ve found that more often than not, friends will step up to help if I ask for it, so this is also a reminder to myself that I am not alone. The importance of this step is to take note of what I am willing to commit to and know where I am going. Being overwhelmed tends to lend itself to feeling directionless, so having a plan reduces that feeling.
  6. Go! I have now let go of what set off my mood. I have a clear plan of action, I know where that plan will lead me. I just need to get started and take that first step.

This is what has worked for me through several rough days. The key to it is not so much overcoming all the challenges I face, so much as it is overcoming the few that are most important and critical to helping me feel better again. There are many things in life that remain outside of our control, but one of the most empowering feelings is to look back on your day, break it down into pieces we can digest, and start making our day better on our own.

The next time you’re overwhelmed and want to try a new toolbox, give this one a try. If it works, I would love to hear about it! If not, find one that works for you. We are all uniquely ourselves and sometimes we require different tools to get us back to good.

In the meantime…

What is in your toolbox?

Tools come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. Use them when we need them. Cambodia, 2016.

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Originally written back in 2020. Published 2021.

It’s never too late to revisit old work and present it to the world.



Cynthia Leung

Free-spirited fun-loving traveler, passionate about people & making the world a better place through sustainability. The question is “Where is Cynthia Now?”