Abstract Homeostatic regulation of sleep is reflected in the maintenance of a daily balance between sleep and wake. Although numerous internal and external factors can influence sleep, it is unclear whether and to what extent the process that keeps track of time spent awake is determined by the content of the waking experience. We hypothesised that alterations in environmental conditions may elicit different types of wakefulness, which will in turn influence both the capacity to sustain continuous wakefulness as well the rates of accumulating sleep pressure. To address this, we performed two experiments, where we compared wakefulness dominated by novel object exploration with either (i) the effects of voluntary wheel running (Experiment 1) or (ii) performance in a simple touchscreen task (Experiment 2). We find that voluntary wheel running results in longer wake episodes, as compared with exploratory behaviour; yet it does not lead to higher levels of EEG slow wave activity (SWA) during subsequent sleep. On the other hand, engagement in a touchscreen task, motivated by a food reward, results in lower SWA during subsequent sleep, as compared to exploratory wakefulness, even though the total duration of wakefulness was similar. Overall, our study suggests that sleep-wake behaviour is highly flexible within an individual, and that the homeostatic process that keeps track of time spent awake is sensitive to the nature of the waking experience. We therefore conclude that sleep dynamics are determined, to a large degree, by the interaction between the organism and the environment.