Pandora Sykes on her new book of essays, the cult of busyness and why she’s found lockdown liberating

“It just feels really surreal. This is probably the calmest bit so far because I’ve been so busy finishing it,” says Pandora Sykes. We’re chatting on the phone the day before her debut book, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? is released. “I started writing it a year ago and I finished at the beginning of March. So it was quite a condensed time frame.”

Sykes, a journalist best known for tapping into the cultural zeitgeist weekly on her hit podcast The High Low, which she hosts with fellow journalist Dolly Alderton, also gave birth to her second child, son Sasha, in December last year. So it’s fair to say she’s been busy.

“I think that lends itself quite well to the essays because they are about modern life,” Sykes adds. “So they kind of date as soon as I’ve written them and I think immersing myself in the essays was probably the best way rather than spending years on each one.”

The decision to write a book of essays on modern life came after Sykes noticed there was a growing appetite for long-form journalism in the UK – an area she was ‘yearning’ to dive into.

“Most of the work I do is quite short and immediate. I record a podcast for an hour or I write a piece of journalism that’s 1,000 words long. I don’t really get the time to go deep and indulge my curiosity and see where it takes me,” Sykes says.

“So it was also just a really nice opportunity to get stuck into something that was not going to be shaped by the opinions of others. I was able to really bury myself into something in quite a singular way, which was really nice. It’s not an opportunity that I’ve had before.”

Writing on eight different topics – from the mania of wellness in The Dream Catchers to how noughties fashion shaped our world as we know it in Get The Look – one idea that didn’t make the cut is Tupperware. “I still really want to write it because I think the modern obsession with Tupperware, including Tupperware parties, is very weird,” Sykes laughs.

Sykes’ new book touches on everything from the mania of wellness to the cult of busyness (Eva K. Salvi )

Sykes noticed a commonality running through each of her essays – the idea of the paradox of choice, and instead of endless options being liberating, it’s making people feel addled and overwhelmed. “What we see a lot of now is a woman who is working full time but she is also expected to be a full time parent, and then she’s buying into this eternal burnishing of herself to make her into this seamless, polished human,” Sykes says.

“And then she externalises all of that online, to make all of that work visible, and also tries to remain in contact with everyone at all times on the smartphone. And I think the multiplicity of these activities, the multiplicity of these options has led to this sort of feeling of restlessness and anxiety.”

This paradox of choice is something Sykes explores in Get The Look: why, when we have multitudes of choice, was every second woman wearing that Zara dress last summer?

“Women are starting to meme one another,” Sykes observes. “Essentially this is a time when we’re being told that you can be an individual, you can be whoever you want to be and you are your own Queen, and ‘my body, my choice’ and all the things that in rhetoric are great, but in practice, I felt like I was seeing real confusion about whether or not these choices were freedom or not.”

Get The Look is the essay that Sykes enjoyed writing the most. “It took me right back to my teenage years and I was trying to sort of track when celebrities and fashion met because they didn’t always meet. They were quite separate things until the paparazzi really.

“The paparazzi, the internet and magazines like Heat and Grazia in the late nineties in the early noughties is what created the celebrity fashion climate as we know it. So I found that really enjoyable because it took me back to a slightly mad time when the Hiltons ruled and jeans would barely cover your pubic bone and diamantes, fake take and GHD hair straighteners reigned.”

Work To Get Happy, which looks at work in all of its guises, was the hardest section to write.

“It meant looking at things that aren’t called work that I felt should be called work like, the work is the home or the work is the self or the work is being kind of constantly available via your phone. I did a vast amount of research for that and it was much much longer than it is now. It’s still, I think, probably the longest essay.”

The first section of the book, The Dream Catcher, taps into the madness of wellness and how it’s become a billion dollar industry. “[Wellness] is extremely expensive, which means that it becomes something that’s out of reach for a lot of people. It’s buying into this really entrenched myth. I think we have been thinking that wellness is really progressive and brand new, but it binds into this historic myth that women are unclean, and that they could be shinier and faster and purer and emptier. And essentially, it’s just eternal self polishing.

“I think it’s really interesting that we don’t talk about diet culture anymore even though 50 per cent of women are on a diet at any given time. Instead now we funnel it through the lens of wellness. You know, it’s about eating clean or eating raw or self care. And there’s nothing wrong with the elements of self care like taking a bath because you’re really tired and your muscles hurt, or taking CBD oil because you’ve got anxiety, but when wellness is turned into the kind of industry which it is, I think it’s really important that we have to remember that this is just another industry that profits off your insecurity and not only that, it demands extreme amounts of money.”

Sykes cites Atlantic writer Amanda Mull who said that ‘wellness is only accessible to the wellest among us’. “It becomes a real class issue,” Sykes adds. “So I think we just need a renosing and maybe a reunderstanding of what we mean when we talk about wellness.”

In the introduction of How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?, Sykes admits that some of the anxieties she writes about could be categorised as ‘middle class’ – but says she didn’t have a specific woman in mind when she was writing the book.

“I’m keenly aware that while I was writing about lots of different anxieties and different experiences, these are not personal essays and they obviously can’t speak for everyone,” Sykes says. “I gave the book at first actually to a few women in their 50s and one in their 60s and what was really nice is that they found things that really resonated with them. Because I really wanted to put in context that these are not new problems, every generation has to sift through the weeds and find the life that suits them best. They’re attracted to new mediums, sure, social media, things like that. But they aren’t new issues.

“Obviously if you are struggling to pay your bills, you are not going to be worrying about wellness or WhatsApp, or that you haven’t got a clear boundary between your work self and your home self. But the global middle class is half the world’s population and it’s growing at tremendous speed, so they’re not niche problems.”

Sykes is the co-host of popular podcast, The High Low (Silvia Ruiz Gil )

One universal problem is the ‘cult of busyness’ – something that is ingrained into our modern subconsciousness.

“I feel like there are certain words that we now use all the time when we’re communicating with other people. If someone says: ‘how are you?’ So often we say, ‘Oh, I’m really tired’ or ‘I’m really busy’. And those are two things I really wanted to look at. This idea that we were getting less sleep than we ever had before, which statistically is not true – we’re getting more sleep than ever before. Or this idea that we’re busier than we’ve ever been before. I wasn’t sure about that either,” Sykes says.

“I think what it often comes down to is a feeling. We feel like we’re always busy because there’s always things that we could be doing or watching or reading. And the psychology of that I think was quite interesting.”

Sykes laughs when she admits that she has been ‘really busy’ during lockdown – with a newborn, a new book and a new podcast – but has also been able to live in the present a lot more, a learning experience she thinks a lot of people have had.

“I think a lot of business comes from always looking ahead. We really live in the future. I think now, with the experiential economy, every time you book something you’re then looking forward to the next experience.

“Of course, we haven’t been able to do that and haven’t been able to book anything or plan anything and certainly I’ve found that liberating. From the conversations that I’ve been having with other people, it sounds like lots of other people have found living in the present quite good for them as well.”

In lieu of a book tour, Sykes launched her new eight-part podcast series, aptly called Doing It Right, earlier this month. “When I realised I couldn’t do a book tour, I wanted to do something else that could be a sort of communication tool, it’s not really about the book – actually I don’t talk about the book at all in it.

“I just wanted to interview people that I find really interesting, and who are experts in their field, and kind of really connect with a lot of the things that we’re talking about and thinking about with modern life.”

So far, Sykes has spoken to comedian Joe Lycett about the evolution of comedy and activist and educator Sinéad Burke about how society should be designed with disabled people in mind as much as it is abled people. “Sinéad talks about it in the most intelligent, easy to understand warm way, I’ve had more response to that than any piece of work I’ve ever done.”

While Sykes has been vocal in the past about trying to stay off social media – despite her 300,000-strong following on Instagram – she admits this hasn’t been possible while trying to promote a new book and podcast.

“I just think the important thing with social media is that we remember that it’s meant to be a tool that serves us, it’s not meant to be something you’re a slave to. I don’t think we should be filling every spare moment scrolling on social media. It leaves no time to daydream, no time to ponder, no time to just be if you’re always immersed in the white noise of other people’s lives.”

A known bibliophile, Sykes has added a slew of new titles to her library during lockdown. “I love – I keep recommending this because I just think it’s such an uplifting book to read at the moment when everyone’s feeling a bit jittery and slightly lost and to give them a little bit of hope – is a book by the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman called Humankind. It’s about how humans are inherently kind. That is a brilliant one to read at the moment.

“I absolutely loved, I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite. It’s a Trojan horse of a book. It’s essentially about black motherhood but it’s also about so much more. It’s such a lively and energetic book. I’m a really big fan of hers. I think anyone that appreciates a good book will roar through that. And fiction, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, that’s a gorgeous one.”

With her book finally out into the world, Sykes is ready to take a much-deserved break with her young family in August. “I’m really excited about that as I didn’t really manage a maternity leave with my son. I’m looking forward to stepping away from the computer and spending some time by the seaside.”

How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? by Pandora Sykes is out now. Buy it here.

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