Q&A: In a new book, James Fell says ‘ah-HA!’ moments are what can really change your life

Sierra Club takes hikers to the 11,500-foot peak of San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains. Yo
A nature walk can lead to inspiration, James Fell says. Solutions often come to us when we’re “not actively trying to solve the problem,” he explains.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Health and fitness columnist James Fell has spent the last decade helping people change their bodies with his newspaper columns and popular Body for Wife blog. (His work has appeared on this website as well.) His latest book, “The Holy S— Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant” (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99), moves well beyond a road map for weight loss, delving into the psychology of how lasting change happens. Fell argues that for many, dramatic life turnarounds don’t come from a series of tortoise-like slow and steady improvements. Rather, he says, it’s the sudden hare-like bursts of inspiration that provide the necessary drive to sprint forward with life-changing transformations.

We asked him to explain:

Why is the epiphany-driven change more effective than a plan of gradual transformation?

Significant change requires a lot of work; day after day, month after month, year after year. An epiphany makes this work feel not like drudgery, but a destiny that you are passionate about fulfilling. The baby-steps approach is often lacking in its ability to create this impassioned adherence.

Author James Fell.
Author James Fell: “If you had an unwavering ability to strive for something, what would it be?”
(Lori Andrews)

How do you know if you’re having an epiphany?

The experience comes with an overwhelming sense of rightness that this is who you are meant to be. It’s a deeply emotional sensation that drives you to pursue a path even in the face of tremendous obstacles.

Talk about your epiphany that led to 17 months of not drinking.

I was out for a run on Christmas Eve and thinking about how much I was looking forward to getting drunk while cooking up a feast the next day. Sudden insight struck me that the anticipation of inebriation is not what the true meaning of Christmas is all about. It didn’t change me in that moment, but I began to think, what if I took a year off? What would I be capable of if I wasn’t drinking? I came to the realization that sobriety could be an adventure. It wasn’t just about quitting but trying something new. The “cons” of change don’t disappear, they just lose importance.

Can we make this sudden inspiration happen?

At first, I didn’t think so. But research does give instruction on how to enhance your ability to come up with creative answers to troubling questions. The problem-solving of finding sudden inspiration is enigmatic. It’s not a concrete blueprint, but we can stack the deck in your favor with the little tasks I’ve put in the book.

What are the most important questions we should ask ourselves to set the stage for sudden inspiration?

If you had an unwavering ability to strive for something, what would it be? What is your not impossible but implausible dream?


Spend a lot of time thinking about the steps that it would take to achieve your goal. If you get stuck on this, engage in distraction techniques. Great thinkers have extolled the virtues of a walk in nature alone. The answer to the problem often comes when you are not actively trying to solve the problem.

And give equal weight to your emotions. What do you feel you should do next? If you come to a sudden awakening of what you feel you must do, you’re going to do it.